Cows, horses, goats, llamas, cats, chickens . . . the trio of female veterinarians who serve farms in seven counties in south-central Maine treat all creatures great and small. Here, following our post “Dr. Rebecca Law, Large-Animal Veterinarian,” is a glimpse of Drs. Rebecca Law, Meghan Flanagan, and Kelsey Hilton at work in shed, pickup truck, and parking lot. —Ed.
“On a bitterly cold winter day at dusk, I was called to deliver a calf from an Angus cow who was housed in a run-in shed on the farm,” says Dr. Law, who owns Turner Veterinary Service in south-central Maine. “A shed is adequate housing for a beef herd, but a bit challenging when Mama needs a C-section. The elderly owners and I were all on our knees, me operating and they holding a light, and it was so cold that once or twice I had to stop and hold my hands in warm water to thaw them out. Still, everybody came out of it okay. This is what we mean when we say we sometimes have to work in ‘limited facilities.’” (The three vets plan to build a “haul-in clinic” on their land where they can provide surgical equipment and other services they can’t use on the road.)
“Another common surgery is a technique to relieve urinary stones in male goats and sheep, and sometimes cattle. When they are in crisis, they literally cannot pass any urine. Surgery involves cutting down to the urethra and removing stones or creating a wider opening for urine to flow. Our last patient eventually passed a handful of stones like perfect BBs. This is a perfect example of surgery that would be so much easier done in the haul-in clinic. You can imagine how far simple aids like proper lighting and a clean, halfway warm environment can go to improve the outcome of the procedure!”
Dr. Law, 58, is the veteran vet. Her two associates are twentysomething Maine natives who graduated from veterinary school only one to three years ago: Drs. Meghan Flanagan and Kelsey Hilton. “They are both incredibly dedicated and enthusiastic about their positions here at TVS and the opportunity to develop under the direction of a seasoned large-animal practitioner with a fair amount of gray in her hair now—that would be me, of course,” Dr. Law says.
The young vets bring special skills to the practice, like the routine use of ultrasound for farm animal reproductive work. “I previously did the reproductive work without ultrasound—reaching deeply into the cow to palpate the calf. After 25 years of rectal palpation in cattle, my shoulder and back are delighted to have turned this aspect of practice over to the younger generation,” Dr. Law says.
Every day, two Turner vets take off at 8 a.m. for scheduled farm visits, each in a fully equipped, full-sized pickup truck. The “Porta-Vet” unit installed in the truck bed contains everything they need to service their patients at their location, which may be up to 75 miles from home base. When they get an emergency call, the doctor who’s closest takes the job. Both doctors also rotate in the emergency-on-call schedule, which means that as a practice they provide 24-hour, 7-days-a week coverage to all of the farm clients. The third vet stays home in Turner’s companion-animal clinic, which operates Monday through Friday and has 11 employees.
But the companion-animal clinic is no place for large farm animals. “Bringing them into the clinic upsets the applecart,” Dr. Law says. “It’s messy, and they’re in a building that’s warmer than they’re used to, and the floor is slippery and they’re not used to walking on linoleum—they need to be in a barn.” Nor can veterinarians working at the farms—say, in a parking lot, by flashlight—give their large patients the amounts of IV fluid, or use the surgical equipment, that they need in an emergency.
That’s why they are bent on establishing a “haul-in clinic” so farmers can bring the patients to them. The Turner staff’s engaging video brought them some seed money when they launched a Indiegogo campaign last year; indeed, last fall they got as far as demolishing an old house on the spot on their land where the haul-in clinic will be. But the project is stalled for lack of funds.
“You’d think a veterinary practice must have enough cash flow to build this clinic,” Dr. Law acknowledges. “But the biggest challenge is the ‘ages and stages’ of the vets involved here. A construction loan for this project might be a reasonable commitment for an owner in mid-career (40s, let’s say)—someone with 20+ years to pay off the loan prior to retiring.
“In our case, I am seeing 60 right around the corner, and my successor(s) are in their 20s and still dealing with student loan debt (still significant, despite the loan forgiveness they got for working in an “underserved” area) as well as just getting on their feet in the adult world. I have taken the risk of hiring and training two young vets, which is in itself a significant financial input.”
Dr. Law emphasizes that the purpose of this clinic is not so much to generate income as to provide a service to support dwindling regional farms and the future of these young vets. “It’s really about providing access to veterinary care for owners of food-producing animals while keeping their costs down. U.S. Government policies—and frankly, society as a whole—undervalues small farming operations to the point where we have to drive ridiculous miles to get to them, they’re so few and far between. As we try to show support for locally grown food, we need help sustaining veterinary services to aid the farmers.
“We’re looking for grant-writers and for donors and contributors of any amount to help make this project happen,” Dr. Law ([email protected]) says. Maine has a critical shortage of large-animal vets, but it also lacks a hospital for non-equine farm animals. “Before I retire, I want to build the clinic so I pass the torch on to the next generation.”