COMPANION | Q1 2014
Bill Harkin Our featured member for this edition of Companion is Dr Bill Harkin of Blackburn Animal Hospital. He spoke to Ben Neutze about his career, from growing up on a small dairy farm to his time as president of the Victorian Division of the AVA.
COMPANION | Q1 2014
Bill Harkin grew up like many vets do with his sights firmly set on one goal – to work with animals. He spent his early years on a small dairy farm in Gippsland, in regional Victoria and soon enough came to the decision that veterinary science would be the most exciting and challenging way of fulfilling his primary ambition. “When I was growing up, the veterinary input into farming was really just developing,” Bill says. “So I didn’t see too many vets out on the farm. But it seemed to be a career that offered a lot more excitement than milking cows for the rest of my life.” Bill enrolled in veterinary science at the University of Melbourne, and although he found the first year to be a little bit of a shock, with its focus entirely on science and theory, he formed a close bond with many of his fellow students. “We very much lived in each other’s pockets – we were a small group – 50, down to about 45 when we graduated,” he says. “When we meet up at our reunion every ten years, it’s just fantastic to get back together – you have that shared bond from having that time together at a very formative time of your life.” When he graduated in 1975, Bill was intending to go into rural practice, with a focus on cattle, but those jobs were thin on the ground. “It was a really bad time for rural veterinary practice,” he recalls. “The Japanese and the Americans had both cut off all of our beef exports and the price of cattle had plummeted to virtually nothing.” He eventually found a rural job, doing mainly routine work – TB testing, pregnancy testing etc. but found that he didn’t have the support he needed in the position. “It was a very tough year. The average length of stay in that job was ten months, and I pretty much conformed to that length of time.”
support and the social interaction I got from the AVA branch meetings made me feel less isolated. Being treated as a fellow professional was just crucial and it made a big difference.” After he left that position, he found that there weren’t rural jobs available, and ended up in a small animal practice. “To my own surprise, I found that I really enjoyed small animal practice. Surgery became my true love and there was just so much more you could do in small animals, surgery-wise, than you could in large animals.” Over the years, Bill worked in a number of small animal practices and owned a smaller practice before 25 years ago he bought Blackburn Animal Hospital. “The practice I had at the time was about a one-and-a-half vet practice, and it wasn’t enough to nail my feet to the floor,” he says. “It might sound strange, but I was very heavily involved in high altitude mountaineering at the time and came to the decision that if I continued doing that I would end up dead. I needed something to distract myself. “I didn’t even know where Blackburn was. I was a country boy, so I had to look it up on a map.” Over the years, Bill has seen the practice undergo a number of changes in its relationship with clients. He says the relationship between owners and their pets has changed, meaning the way the practice provides services has had to move to reflect this. “We moved our consultations from 10 minutes to 15 minutes to 20 minutes. We’ve got a greater emphasis on preventative medicine now, and if that’s what you’re dealing with, you have to spend more time talking to people about doing that.” He says that being a stable presence in the community has meant that his relationship with clients has improved over the years, to the point where there’s great trust between the practice and the clients.
Bill had been a member of the AVA since he was a second year student, but in his first year as a new graduate, found the support invaluable.
“With most of those clients, if I say we have to do something, their reply will be ‘when can you do it?’, not ‘how much will it cost?’ or ‘is it necessary’.”
“I was really thrown into the deep end and was out there on my own,” he says. “The
Bill also, in 2009, became the President of the AVA Victorian Division. During his
time, he dealt wit the aftermath of the 2009 bushfires, ensuring vets were involved in planning for the future, helped to revive the AVA Victorian Division conference and establish VIAG; the Victorian Industry Advisory Group, devoted to the improving the education of vet nurses. Although his presidency ended in 2011, he’s still active in lobbying and sits on a number of committees, including the Victorian Division. Although he’s confident that the profession will continue to develop in positive ways, he’s concerned that vet schools are graduating far too many students. “I’ve had discussions with politicians and universities, but the universities are in the situation where they’re squeezed for funds, and their answer to that is to increase the number of students and hope that will raise enough money for them to keep going. But there isn’t any responsibility to the students.” A lot of people do law, who don’t end up working as a solicitor, but I don’t think that everybody who studies law expects to work as a solicitor, and you can use that degree in lots of ways. I think people who go into a veterinary degree – the vast majority of them have decided to become a vet at an early age in life, and they put everything into it. Graduating so many students is not a socially responsible thing to do.” Outside of his professional life, Bill has had four children with his wife Jan, and two grandchildren. One of his sons is in Medicine, and one of his daughters works at Blackburn as a veterinary nurse. His seven-year-old granddaughter, Sienna, like Bill has her heart set on working with animals. “I encourage her, tell her to work hard at school. But there’s a long way between being a seven-year-old who wants to become a vet and actually being one,” Bill says. “It saddens me when I talk to vets who have discouraged their children from joining the profession. “I think there’s a problem with vets having low professional self esteem. Not enough people have pride in being vets. I’m really proud to be a vet. I’m somebody who grew up on a small dairy farm and to me, to have achieved what I have is fantastic. If you can enjoy going to work every day after 38 years of doing the same job, I don’t think you can ask for much more.”
COMPANION | Q1 2014
A day in the life of…
on radiographs, but I warn his owner, in the discharge letter that I write, that it will require a lengthy course of antibiotics and bathing to get on top of the infection, and still might require amputation of the third phalanx.
The day starts with the alarm going off at
6:40 am. Out of bed, shower; feed the dog and cat. Then my breakfast; important to get the priorities right. Accompanied to gate, to pick up newspapers, by hopeful dog. No time for walk this morning. Quick scan of news and more in-depth read of last night’s cricket results. Leave for work at 7:45 am, again accompanied to gate by hopeful dog, this time with tennis ball in mouth. One lengthy throw and I set off.
Progress to excitable 2 year old female cavoodle, with 12 month history of intermittent front leg lameness. Unable to elicit any pain response, either in original consult, or prior to sedating for radiographs. No visible lameness. Radiograph from neck to toes; nothing evident. I had suspected it was elbow or shoulder, & I am now pretty sure that it is not the elbow. I think there may be a subtle instability in the shoulder, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Send her home with a short course of NSAIDs and then recheck. I think I will be referring her then for advanced imaging +/- arthroscopy.
7:50 am Arrive at work; I don’t like long commutes. I am on surgery this morning; nothing very major booked in. No major medical cases in at moment, so no inhospital medical cases to examine. Start with premeds: two 6 month old Lab X littermates to spey. One turns out to be in season, the other not. Followed by in season cat spey, then an old friend turns up with 2 cats he has “rescued” from a nursing home. Unfortunately, they don’t want to keep them, even though Chris had offered to pay for their desexing. I have agreed to take them on, and try to find homes for them, as well as the two kittens of the female. Spey the female (who turns out to be heavily pregnant), castrate the male; vaccinate & apply Revolution. Chris offers to pay for them, but I wouldn’t take anything from him. He is just someone who finds it difficult to see cats abandoned. We do have an active kitten adoption program, and I find it very satisfying to see people coming back with their adopted kittens, and becoming long term clients. Might not be very economic in the short term, but can pay off in the long term. Have a very nice Burmese cat booked in for sedation and removal of a torn nail. Turns out to be a nasty infection, with sinus tract on lateral aspect of digit; has been going for some time. Nail comes off very easily. Ring owner and get go ahead for X-rays. No sign of bone involvement or neoplasia
IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO STILL BE BRIGHT AND ENTHUSIASTIC FOR THE LAST PATIENT OF THE DAY JUST AS MUCH AS THE FIRST. Have a chat about some current cases with Dr Suzanne Nunn. Suzanne has been with me for 25 years in this practice, and is our medical and dermatological expert. I try to cure everything with a scalpel, so fortunately we are complimentary. I did a core biopsy on a dermal mass on one of her patients, Ben (a 13 yo Golden Retriever with a very, very attached, and nervous, owner) a few days ago. It has come back as a grade 1 soft tissue sarcoma. Suzanne will ring Karen, the owner, with the news. I believe there is a very strong chance of curative surgery. I had already prospectively booked Ben in for surgery in a few days. Hannah shows me a photo sent in by Lisa, a very long-standing client who has just got home from hospital after breast cancer surgery. I removed a mast cell tumour from her dog, Silk, last Friday. She found out the same day she herself needed surgery Lisa also lost her husband recently, from very early onset Alzheimers. Life isn’t always fair.
Wound looks good in photo. Small amount of swelling, & very minor seromatous discharge. Lisa can’t bring her in for a recheck, so Hannah will arrange for either herself or Suzanne to call in to Lisa’s to check the wound. The secret of a successful practice is good staff. Head home for lunch at 2:30 pm. I will be consulting tonight from 5:00 till 8:00 (or usually later). I have gradually reduced my hours, so I am only consulting 2 evenings these days. The downside is that I am always booked out, and often go fairly late. I use the afternoon break to keep on top of bookwork, check emails, and usually have a short nap before going back in to work at about 4:45 pm. It is very important to still be bright and enthusiastic for the last patient of the day, just as much as the first. Get phone call at 3:30 pm: can I come in & do a caesarean. They have had a walk-in with a very small Pomeranian or Pom X bitch, mated by a mid-size dog; unknown dates. Recipe for trouble! Head back in to work. Suzanne has got one live pup out, but no response to Oxytocin, and at least one pup still inside. I can just touch puppy’s tail per vag. Go ahead with Caesar & spay. Get out one live but very depressed pup, and one much smaller dead one. Very nice natured little bitch, Princess. Not her fault, but I think some thoughts about irresponsible owners. At least Princess won’t have to go through it again. Pleasant evening consulting; mix of longstanding and new clients. It is always a pleasure to deal with the people that I have known for very lengthy times. The ones that think I am a total idiot have left long ago, and the ones that remain do so because they like the service that we, as a practice, provide. Finish with a very nice Chinese family, with a Moodle puppy. Inexperienced animal owners, but very keen to do the right thing. Lovely pup, and spend a lot of time giving advice.
8:45 pm Say goodnight to Naomi and Catherine, who are just finishing cleaning up, & head home for tea. 8:50 pm Met at gate by eager dog! Still 39 degrees; too hot for walk tonight. It has been a good day, and a good example of why I still enjoy going to work every day, after 38 years of doing so.