Anne de Vos became a veterinarian in 1976 after earning her BVSc (Veterinary Science) degree from the University of Pretoria, located about 60 kilometers north of Johannesburg. At the time, there was only one veterinary school in the country and she was one of four females in her graduating class. Nevertheless, Dr. de Vos was as determined as ever.
After 41 years, Dr. de Vos still practices medicine and owns her practice Ladybrand Animal Clinic in Ladybrand, South Africa.
Voice of the Vet™ chatted with Dr. de Vos after the clinic closed for the day.
When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian? What sparked your interest?
My brother, who was ten years older, was a veterinarian. He went off to vet school and I thought that was just the greatest. We always had lots and lots of pets growing up. When I finished primary school, I initially tested for oceanography, but decided to be a veterinarian. At the time, there was a distinct bias against women. But times have changed, there are more programs, larger faculties, and females are now more dominant in our industry.
What’s one piece of wisdom you would offer future vets?
Don’t let your profession define you—keep perspective. As veterinarians, we must know who we are and what our priorities are both personally and professionally. Many people in our profession are overwhelmed by stress. When you start talking to them, they typically say something that implies, “being a veterinarian is my whole life.” I think as veterinarians, we have to ask ourselves what we would do without the profession, what are our interests outside of work, what are our values, what do we love. Life is about more than our work. We are human beings with purpose in this life first and foremost.
From your perspective, what do you think makes a healthy veterinarian? Do you feel like a healthy veterinarian?
I do. But, I had to learn to distinguish my profession from my identity, and discover what grounded me. I also found that by serving others, I am able to let the joy come through.
Do you have a memorable patient you could share a story about?
Oh, there are quite a few. But one was this little boy’s six-week old kitten. The kitten had intussusception (blockage) of the gut and needed an emergency enterectomy (piece of the intestine removed) – but the kitten’s gut itself was so tiny. It was like a piece of macaroni. At the time, I didn’t have experience with the procedure, especially with a patient of that size. There were not any referral facilities in the area, so we could not hospitalize. I suggested euthanasia to the father. But he explained that the boy’s brother had drowned a week before, and I simply had to save that kitten! It was so precarious. I finished, went home, and told my children to pray for that little kitten. And, he pulled through with flying colors. It meant a lot to both the owner, his kid and my family.
What’s your favorite thing about coming to work each day?
I never know what the day will bring—there are always new challenges, new people, and an element of surprise. And most importantly, I get to make a difference for animals and their owners: even on days where just about everything goes wrong. I tell myself that each vaccination I did, means one less puppy will die of parvo. It means one more puppy will run and play just because I was there.
Could you tell us about an emergency case you have treated?
I have one that’s rather special. A nine or ten-year-old boy came to me because his only cow was in labor. The cow had fetal dystocia (abnormal fetal size or position resulting in difficult delivery). In this case, the calf was stuck because the front leg was bent backwards. I just couldn’t get the introducer around its leg, to be able to straighten it out, and deliver the calf. A caesarian section was out of the question due to the family’s financial situation. I’m not very tall. But this kid had long arms as boys that age often do. So I told him, put your arm in and see if you can get hold of the introducer. He did it and we got the calf straightened out and delivered whole and healthy. I will never forget the smile on his face when he said “I got it!”
What are some of the misconceptions about what veterinarians do?
Many clients believe that the veterinary profession is all about playing with puppies and kittens. They are uninformed about the costs and effort it takes to be qualified, the costs it takes to open and run a practice, the long hours, the lack of appreciation from pet owners, and the emotional fatigue veterinary professionals face. And, when it comes to our patients, pet owners do not always understand the complexity of everything that goes wrong with their pet and the decisions vets make regarding treatment.
It also took a long time to educate pet owners on how to deal with abandoned or stray animals. Many people want to pick up and adopt animals, which is noble. But, once they discover the costs of rescue, they don’t want to pay for veterinary care, because it is not their pet. This happens a lot with wild animals and birds. People bring them in for fixing up, with a total lack of appreciation for the cost and effort it will entail and refuse to take any responsibility for helping cover the costs. Veterinarians in South Africa work hard to educate pet owners about situations like these.
Any funny veterinary experiences you could share with us?
Well there are many, but the funniest involved my husband, who was also a veterinarian. He had a difficult case involving a cow and her dead calf. He came home after and was so stinky. That same day we were attending either a wedding or a ball, I can’t remember which, but we had to get all dressed up. By the time we left for the party, he smelled quite nice.
We loved to dance and after a while I realized that my best was starting to get sweaty (and smell). Later I noticed another couple dancing near us—the gentleman picked up his shoe to smell it and checked for poop on the bottom. I said to my husband, oh, we had better go. We laughed.
What was it like working as a veterinarian and being married to another veterinarian?
People warned us about the obstacles. We went into marriage with our eyes open to the challenges. We did a lot of planning. We started our practice together, his focus was on large animals, and mine was on companion animals. It’s a lot easier to work with your spouse than another partner—as long as you define responsibilities. Unfortunately, my husband passed away about 20 years ago in a car accident.
In the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world, compassion fatigue, disproportionate student debt, and high suicide rates are issues that plague the veterinary community, do those same issues occur in South Africa?
Oh yes, much of it is the same. Suicide is a major issue. I’ve been looking at vet schools and other resources to compare findings on suicide in the veterinary profession. I believe to a certain extent, our profession is too focused on academic merit. We have selected students and staff based on academic merit, and while they may excel academically, they do not always have the highest level of emotional intelligence, which is critical to the role we play.
What procedures do you love that others might consider gross or bizarre?
Abscesses are very gratifying. They are very uncomfortable for the patient, but relief is quick and easy. I also really enjoy anal gland operations—they get so full and irritated. It’s just easier to remove them. There’s actually a joke around my clinic that if you’re looking for me, just look under a dog’s tail. Ha!
What would you consider the secret to your success?
Keep on learning to be humble, open, and honest. People appreciate those qualities. They open doors much more than knowing everything. I always say people only care about how much you know if they know how much you care.
A HEALTHY VET IS JOYFUL, PROFITABLE, EFFECTIVE, AND COURAGEOUS
This is the eleventh post in a series of interviews with veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and practice managers discussing their devotion to the noble veterinary profession and love for their pet patients. We hope you will follow us during this series.
If you are a clinical vet, vet tech or practice manager we want to interview you for this series. It only takes an hour of your time and Zomedica makes a donation in your name to an animal charity of your choice.