Colin qualified from Liverpool in 1998; had fun and still loves the place. He worked in Cheshire and then moved with young family to Cornwall 12 years ago. He joined a small animal practice, started a referral surgery facility, grew, worked hard, and thrived. Colin feels passionately that the vet profession is a village, small enough to care for each other, and to mentor the generations that succeed us.
Tell us about a daily habit or routine you practice that contributes to your productivity and fulfilment?
Make a brew for your team. Remember how they like it, who has sugar, goat’s milk, decaf, a hot squash or a glass of milk; get the kettle on. I have no time for separation of locations or strict timings of breaks; our patients and procedures don’t follow rules and we have to flex in with that. So be proactive – nothing shows you care in a moment more than giving someone a drink, or food, and making the effort not just to provide it but to make it how they like it. It’s a fundamental, innate, deep-set instinct. I learnt that from my mum – she led a diverse, casual team of catering staff, from camp Brazilian teenage lads to hard-as-nails Irish grandmothers. I’d work some nights and holidays with her – she'd sit us all down together before a lunchtime service, make us all a brew and a cheese roll, and you could see everyone absolutely revered her for it. They knew she cared about them all, they respected and looked up to her.
What was a major setback that you learnt the most from, or actually turned out to be a success?
Rejections in Uni applications, failure in Uni exams, repeating a year – I was a disastrous academic student. The first few years simply didn't interest me, they were just a flaming hoop I had to leap through.
But I did develop a fair bit as a human being, going from being a quiet mouse in the background to being fairly out there, ending up as student president. My route to doing that was not through academic prowess but getting out and stuck in, largely through using humour- it’s a terrific way to engage. So I wrote and performed sketches, drew cartoons, became editor for the 'Rumen' comedy mag.
I've found that as a means to engage with people - clients in a consult room, a prep room full of vets and nurses, settle nervous students - life is best lived with a smile on your face, and it makes a real difference to wellbeing. It's easy to trivialise the importance of 'fun', but whether it’s childish gags or flippant funnies, making people happy is really cool thing to do.
When you start to doubt your own ability, or are having 'a bad day at the office', how do you get back on track? Can you give us an example?
As a surgeon, clients can paint you as hero or zero, with little in-between. If you let yourself ride that rollercoaster, with the extreme highs, then the complications will come as plummeting lows.
‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same’ is a great quote. Make sure you knock a bit off the peak of your rollercoaster, when things are going well, and hold it back, mentally, to fill in the trough when the leg comes back swinging in the breeze and dripping pus. Acknowledge it happens to everyone. I was at a TPLO CPD course once, as a young vet, and there was a group of Diplomats chatting. They were sharing their failures, disasters, complications, tough scrapes, lucky escapes. They had nothing to prove to each other, they were secure enough to share their real life lows. That stayed with me: you don’t always find that attitude in the chat at ortho CPD events!
What have you got better at saying no to? How did you realise this and how has it benefitted you?
Circumstances changed and I found I didn’t have to stay in an unpleasant and frustrating situation, so I walked away. As I sent my resignation, I had a sensation of an overbearing presence behind me, leaning down on my shoulders, suddenly lifting off. Looking back, I realise just how much I had borne and sustained. When there was no alternative, you just got on with it. Endurance brought reward, certainly I’ve been able to provide for my family in a way that I am very proud of, but perhaps only time will tell the ultimate cost and whether it was worth it. I don’t think it’s a journey I would have begun if I’d known how it would have turned out, and with hindsight, I would have been a hell of a lot firmer earlier on and stood for a lot less nonsense: and in any future venture getting a positive, respectful and hardworking culture within a leadership team will be key.
If you could gift a book to all vets at graduation, what would it be, and why? (It doesn't have to be specific to animal health!)
Corny, but one of James Herriott’s books. I think as a profession we’ve got better and better at treating animals, the science of what we do has progressed massively. But amongst all that clinical evidence and study, I’m not sure we’ve retained that strong sense of client connection, service and place in the community that comes with settling into a practice. When you get to a stage when walking into the waiting room, you see a number of familiar faces, all looking to you for help with their loved one, the job becomes about so much more than diagnostics and clinical expertise, and a whole new level of rewarding. The Herriott books really convey the joy of those relationships.
Tell us about something you are currently a fan of? This could be anything; a person, trend, hypothesis, mindset, diet, activity, tech, hobby etc.
I’ve just rediscovered playing football, and I’m rather kicking myself I didn’t play for 20 years after college. I was never any good, but playing in the vets team at uni there was a strong sense of belonging; bit of fitness, team purpose, competition. I lost connection with sport for a long time. As a family we’re outwardly active, camping, building treehouses or a stage and bar in field – but actually being part of a team on a Friday night (other than skinning my knee doing a sliding tackle on Astroturf) already feels an important part of life once more.
What purchase of less the £100 has most positively impacted your life in the last 12 months?
Two free rescue Jack Russell pups! Sheesh, they’re hard work. Still not had their second vaccs, but we’re already planning places to go and trips with them. We’re lucky to have some space at home, we’ve got cats, sheep and hens so the pups have a lot to get used to but they’re making a good fist of it so far. Thank goodness for tiled floors and paper towels!
Lots of fun ahead with these pair, I’m sure.
What is the worst bit of advice you hear regularly in our profession? Why do you feel it is bad advice?
Work-life balance. It sets an image of the two factors on a seesaw, the opposites of each other, as thought when you’re working, you’re not living. Some of the finest, proudest, triumphant, joyful moments and experiences of my life have been in a consult room, op theatre, or nattering in a staff room. We’re a profession – our work is part of our life. I enjoy a decent fracture repair, a foreign body removal, spinal op, Caesarian - far more than watching telly or cooking dinner – probably more even than playing football. Even a well-performed euthanasia can bring a feeling of deep professional pride that you’ve helped people at a bloody rough time. There is a great deal to be gained from the work that we do – we don’t just stack shelves or sit on an assembly line – and whilst we must care for other priorities too, especially our families, don’t fall into the trap of thinking all time at work is a sacrifice of our life – they can be amongst the brightest and shiniest parts of our lives too.
What advice would you give veterinary graduates about to begin their careers?
Immerse yourself, during your working week. Make the most of your days/weekends off, make plans, book tickets, meet up, be fully away from work and keep your social engagement up.
But on a work day – that's enough. Pour your full focus into it, for the first six months or so, because the sooner you get capable at your clinical work, like riding a bike, the easier your day becomes- you are more capable, more efficient, consults, procedures, ops all go smoother and take less time.
And seriously, after a decent day at work, an easy meal, a pal cooking dinner, a takeaway; maybe a walk, telly and the sofa is fine. Ask a reasonable amount of yourself, see your clinical practice as a goal achieved, not an onerous obligation or enemy for your time. Don’t fight it, enjoy it. And get a dog to come home to, if you can – you'll empathise more strongly with your clients, and you’ll have a companion even on quiet evenings. You’re moving from a highly social environment, with all your peers, to what can be a lonely or isolating situation of single living. Get a dog.
If you could send a single text to every vet around the world simultaneously, what would it say? This can be one word, a message or an entire paragraph.
In every primary school classroom, right now, there are kids who dream of being a vet; of having the opportunities to heal, care, and show kindness to people and animals that we do every day. With familiarity it can feel like a burden; but our role is a privilege, an honour, and can bring great joy. With your face up close it can seem a dark place; but if you can step back, allow the light to fall on the situation, treat yourself to a wider perspective and see ourselves through aspirational eyes, there is great interest, joy, purpose and achievement to be found in our everyday lives.
I wish you the gift of seeing yourself as others see you.