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[noun Colloquial 1. an assistant. 2. a close friend.]

‘the most g is important thin the to g making comin vets a positive experience’

Claire Fleming started in March 2012 as practice manager and head nurse at the Gold CoastVet Surgery and was nominated as a great ‘sidekick’ by her boss, practice owner, Dr Kevin Cruickshank.

Being a great sidekick Words: Claire Fleming as told to Andrea Ferris. Images: Andrea Ferris My husband, Tim, and I came from the United Kingdom four-and-a-half years ago and have just applied for citizenship.


Claire Fleming Practice Manager, Gold Coast Vet Surgery

I was born in Surrey—supposedly a posh area of the UK. My husband comes from Essex, which has the reputation of being the rough side of town! I actually fell into veterinary nursing! My family always had pets: ducks, rabbits, cats and hamsters. I actually wanted to do speech therapy at university, but you can’t do a lot with a speech therapy degree if you don’t want to do speech therapy! I took a year out [after school] to decide what I wanted to do and found a job as a trainee veterinary nurse in the local paper, so I gave it a go and haven’t looked back. I remember in the first couple of weeks [of my first job] I thought, ‘Oh my God I’m never going to know all this and remember all this stuff!’

I worked in a few practices around the UK, starting as a trainee and working my way up to head nurse. In the UK, no matter where you work or where you are, every vet nurse receives the same level of training. We got foxes, badgers and hedgehogs in [to the clinic] all the time. Hedgehogs are great as they roll up in a ball and you can’t get to them to find out what’s wrong. I worked with dogs and cats mostly, but also lots of farm animals. I went home once with a lamb in a box that needed hand-rearing. I used to travel with it in the back of my little hatch-back and when it popped its head up anyone behind me was astonished to see a sheep in the car! Bless mum and dad, they were happy for me to bring home lots of transient animals.

ray ‘Claire with a st g to n ti Chihuahua wai s be found by it plan; like when clients owner’ aren’t happy or we have to euthanase animals.

When I was 28, one of the nurses I worked with asked me to go travelling with her and we spent three months in south-east Asia and then came to Australia. We had more travel plans, but she found a job and I met Tim in a Brisbane backpacker’s hostel and went home with him. Tim and I wanted to come back to Australia to live, but it took us 10 years to get back here because we didn’t have the right qualifications to get in. Eventually I got sponsorship through friends with a vet clinic at Ipswich. At first it was very hard living off just my wage in a new area. We’ve settled in well and feel comfortable here, but there are times, like Christmas, birthdays and family events, when we feel homesick. We have two ‘furry’ children: Harry [cat] came in [to the surgery] about seven days old and needed hand rearing and Basil [cat] was about five weeks old and had a damaged pelvis having been hit by a car. I was a head nurse in Ipswich, but I wanted more of a challenge. I saw the ad for this Gold Coast position and Tim and I talked about it for a while because it was a massive change and would involve moving. I was very excited about the role because I got a good feeling about the place at the interview. I was a bit nervous starting a new job. It’s like going to school for the first time—a little bit scary. It wasn’t just a change of job; it involved a move for us too. If it didn’t work out, I couldn’t rethink it—our whole lifestyle was going to change. I felt absolutely useless for the first couple of weeks. It’s a horrible feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to ask, learn and listen and accept that they’re not expecting you to do everything. It took a month before I really felt confident and comfortable, however I’m still learning how things are done and new things, but that’s a part of this job—you learn every day. There’s always stress and strain in a job and I have days when things don’t go to

We euthanase because the animal is suffering and we’re lucky we’ve got that option. It’s hard though and I tell new nurses that they need to get on well with the team to share the stress and you need to be able to talk to someone at home about it. You never get used to that part of the job: I still cry with some clients and get upset. The day I don’t is the day I should get out of the business. My job is a huge part of my life. Tim says I never switch off and I think about work all the time! My way of winding down is to go home and talk about my day to my understanding husband who listens and takes it all in. He’s quite good at diagnosing now as he’s heard so much about it for so long! When we’re not working we like to get out and about. We go and see places and go for walks. We do a lot of outside stuff and we go to the cinema a lot as Tim is a film buff. We just moved to Upper Coomera so we’ve got a whole new area to explore. By stepping up to be practice manager I’ve taken on all the little administration jobs so they [the vets] can concentrate on being vets and building the practice.

I’m the person behind the scenes implementing ideas and making sure we develop the best patient care and have the best client service. To do this job you need to be organised and flexible. I can plan my day and something unusual walks through the door and the plan goes to pot! You also have to be practical and realise you can’t do everything for everybody and every animal. And, it helps to be passionate and love what you do. If I was giving advice to someone thinking about being a vet nurse I’d tell them they have to be prepared to work hard and be on their feet all day. You sometimes work unsociable hours and there’s not a huge financial reward. It’s not glamorous: about seventy percent of the job is cleaning and it’s stressful when animals are put to sleep. But sending them home well after nursing them is pretty special—it’s why you do the job.

side kick In the next 12 months I want to develop my role and help develop the clinic. There are always new treatments, drugs and equipment to consider and Kevin and Fiona [practice owners] are keen to progress. The most important thing for all of us is to make coming to the vets the most positive experience that it can possibly be for clients by offering the best service and treatments and preventative care. If I had a magic wand and three wishes I’d make animals able to talk so they could tell us what is wrong and we could explain what we are going to do to them; I’d make dog poo smell flowery; and I’d have all pet owners give their animals the same level of health care as they would people.

I love making sure pets are happy and healthy and, when we send them home well, that’s the best feeling in the world.

what the boss says

Up until now I haven’t had the luxury of a practice manager and so I wore many hats: vet, marketing manager, public relations, human resources, health and safety, pharmacist, stock controller, complaints desk and business manager. Taking on a practice manager has been a very exciting step in the growth of our practice, but it’s meant that I’ve had to learn to delegate; something that I’m not very good at! Claire is learning how to be ‘me’ so we can continue with the same ethos and customer service that’s built the practice to where it is today. She’s making it easy for me though by absorbing all that I’m dumping on her and doing a great job of covering the middle ground between management and the rest of the team, as well as helping us to improve our customer service. She really is a good ‘sidekick’—supervising the medical work in the clinic; stepping in as an experienced nurse when required; as well as taking many administration tasks off my desk. It’s testament to her abilities that, as I write this, I’m at an interstate vet conference for a week not stressing about how the practice is coping without me. I’m sure they’re all having a party, led by Claire!

Its early days and I haven’t discovered anything annoying about my bosses! It’s a positive place to work, but I knew from the start they were people I’d get on with.


Feature article - Personality Profile  
Feature article - Personality Profile  

An interview-style profile of vet nurse, Claire Fleming. Words and images: Andrea Ferris