Secrets of a long career in practice... - Veterinary Practice
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Secrets of a long career in practice…

GARETH CROSS talks to Edmund Shillabeer about what keeps him going after nearly 50 years in practice, during which time he has become a world champion athlete … and gets some tips

WE all find the veterinary workplace difficult and stressful sometimes, and many of us are glad of support from colleagues around us. Even if we enjoy most of our job most of the time, most of us hope and try to plan for an early, comfortable and long retirement.

When I wrote about stress at work last year I was inundated with e-mails from vets confirming the general consensus as outlined above. One character, however, stood out from all the rest as someone who still viewed his job as a vocation, wasn’t looking to get out early and thrived working as a solo vet.

He is also a world champion athlete and at age 73 can walk 20km (just under a half marathon distance) quicker than most 20-year-olds could run it: in 2011 at Sacramento he was crowned the M70 (70-year-old plus male) World Champion 20km race-walker in a time of 2 hours 3minutes 17 seconds.

I thought we all could learn something from him, so this month’s column is an interview with Edmund Shillabeer.

He was born in 1939 and was at the Bristol vet school from 1958 to 1964. He married in 1963. From 1964 to 1970 he worked as an assistant mainly in the south-west; then in 1970 set up as a solo vet in Plymouth. He still is at the same practice and has never had a day off sick since he started.

Gareth. Was going it alone a positive decision or had you looked at other options, e.g. partnerships? And similarly, has it been a positive decision to keep going it alone versus expansion and growing an empire?

Edmund. Yes and yes. The decision was a choice to gain control of my attitude to clients and patients and of prices, etc., to be as accessible as possible whilst making enough to raise a family rather than make a fortune.

G. You are 73 and still work full-time. I am interested in your decision about not retiring. How much of this is financial necessity or is it again a positive decision? Or more a case of you are happy as you are and why change it?

E. Mainly a positive decision, and a long-time client plonking a new pup on the table and saying “You can’t retire until you have to put her to sleep” does help the positive decision! My reply was “OK, that’s a 15-year sentence then is it?” God will tell me when my usefulness expires!

G. How do you cope with the on-call as a solo vet?

E. Having chosen to go solo on 1st March 1970 I can’t complain about that 24/7 commitment, but since I had a near death RTA in 1997 I have paid the local veterinary hospital handsomely to cover my noon Saturdays to 8am Mondays and bank holidays.

I asked Edmund to give me a couple of examples of how the veterinary work has changed over the years from his perspective. E. Pre-1970 I vetted on South Hams farms and saw TB close to eradication due to rigorous testing and slaughter. Badgers – I saw teeming bacilli in the lungs of one that had died on its way back into a sett at Wills Hall which was partly illuminated by the street lights of Parrys Lane. I autopsied it at Bristol University in 1961. Closed farms suffering TB breakdowns removed their badgers without endangering that species overall.

Then the Badger Act plus cost-cutting testing relaxation has led to the disgraceful situation we are now in. See www.vetwildlifemanagement. for a six-minute video on the subject.

Whilst at Modbury I contracted brucellosis from cleansing cows, but my doctor took my advice, banged in the antibiotics pronto and I stayed at work. By the time the test was positive I was better because unlike when my boss had contracted it years before, the bug was beaten before it could go intracellular. It still precludes me from being a blood donor though. Testing did eradicate that scourge from the national herd.

With no advertising for the practice allowed, in my first week going solo in my home town of Plymouth I had two clients: my Godmother and the man who put up my plate. DIY is still a no-no with me! Word of mouth is powerful and I soon got busy enough to buy a house for Barbara and me to live in and bring up our family of three whilst using the whole of the original premises downstairs for work with a nurse’s flat above.

In this very busy existence I kept sane by keeping fit. Pre-breakfast training walks also enabled me to escape the phone and so solve the previous day’s problem cases by the time I had them back in later that day. No internet info to help me!

One such occasion led me to hesitantly attempt a feline thyroidectomy having palpated a goitre. Success! I noticed that by the time I removed the sutures, its heart seemed better as well. Since that first one around 1972-73 I estimate that close to a thousand cats have benefited from my similar interference.

Excellent images

In the early days the occasional lendectomy or cruciate repair was done and I developed my own x-rays, taken with a second-hand Sterling dental machine, in trays on my table in a blacked-out consulting room at the end of the day. The majority of images were excellent but the KV was a bit wanting when it came to a large Labrador’s torso so exposure time was higher than used these days.

Now I have a visiting radiographer using the dedicated x-ray room (that I had built when I moved to my current airy premises) with his modem equipment, and I do a lot more referral of orthopaedic and ophthalmology cases these days.

G. I imagine that you must have good and consistent support at work and home?

E. I have the backing of a wonderful family (Golden Wedding in August) and staff (Mary, VN, 36 years running the practice); brilliant locums over the years have enabled me to travel to competitions.

G. What success have you had as an athlete?

E. I currently hold several accolades:

  1. Oldest GB athletic débutante (Vincimus Fortitudine).
  2. GB Track 100km walking record (9:41:54) 1991.
  3. M70 World Champion 20km (2:03:17) Sacramento 2011.
  4. M70 European Champion 30km (3:15:08) Upice (Czech) 2013.
  5. Amateur Sports Personality of the year (Plymouth area) 2011.

G. Many vets are active, do sports and although few of us will make it to be world or European athletic champions, we all would like to still be fit, active and happy (though not necessarily working full-time!) at your age, have you any tips for us?

E. Tips to pass on? Mental health – practise Christianity. Have a positive prayerful mental attitude. Have regular “me” time. Professional health – choose to work where you are comfortable, do your best for your patient and listen to what the client/owner wants. Social health – involve yourself in unselfish areas like charities of choice or local politics.

Financial health – not qualified to advise, although I will work until God tells me otherwise because it is my vocation, not job. I still need to pay the mortgage at 73 years old! Physical health – train intensively but not too long, even for ultra-distance events like 28-hour races, Iron man races, even the quadrathon, but that’s another story. Build in a rest day.

Use supplements: I put my record of never missing a scheduled day’s work since 1970 and astounding rapid recovery from my RTA down to a regular consumption of Nutralite products. Listen to your body. With the above you will sleep well (despite challenges) and enjoy life!

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