Going the extra mile to help farmers

Sarah Tomlinson, dairy vet of the year

Right now, I’m loving life. I love my job, I’m a single mum of three wonderful children, the other side of 40 and I have just won the Dairy Vet of the Year at the industry’s Cream Awards. If I can do it, there is hope for anyone!

I didn’t get into vet school at my first attempt. I had to re-sit physics A level, but I was determined – I worked hard to get the required grades – and in 1996 I set off to Edinburgh university vet school.

I was lucky to grow up in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside and although I didn’t have a veterinary or farming background, I was inspired by the James Herriot books.

I worked on a local dairy farm from the age of 14, initially feeding calves and then graduating to milking. I spent every Easter holiday lambing and one summer on a pig farm, as well as seeing practice at my local vets in York – Grant and Partners, now Minster Vets.

'My ambition in life was to be the vet that farmers asked for when they rang up'

This experience was invaluable as it taught me about farming and, more importantly, about farmers. I have never claimed to be the best vet in the world, but my broader knowledge of the industry, hard work and communication skills have carried me through.

After qualifying, I started my career in mixed practice at Peak Veterinary in Matlock. I really loved the work and I feel this start was important. I loved small animal surgery, and contemplated doing a surgical certificate. But my ambition in life was to be the vet that farmers asked for when they rang up. I knew I had achieved this when I answered the phone to a farmer in the middle of the night and he said: ‘I am glad it’s you.’ Such moments will stay with me forever.

I joined Scarsdale Vets’ farm team in 2007. It was busy! Every day I did bovine TB (bTB) testing, calvings, scanning, displaced abomasums and more bTB testing. It was a steep learning curve and I loved every minute. Family life was easier without late nights or weekend working (except on-call). Farmers don’t call you unless they really need to (I don’t think students realise this) and that’s a positive thing for any dedicated large animal vet.

In 2009 I joined the fledgling practice Westpoint in Ashbourne. Not long after I did so, I had two more children and this realistically meant I had to move to part-time work.

I love my children and I cherish the time I spent with them as babies and toddlers. But parents, especially mums I suspect, are full of guilt much of the time.

At work you feel you should be at home with your children – and you can guarantee that a calving will come in just as you are about to leave for the school nativity play. Younger vets join the practice and are promoted over you, and you feel guilty for not being able to give 100 per cent to the job you love. It’s tough, and for a long time it was difficult to cope with.

I now realise that it was partly my problem – I assumed people would notice me if I worked hard. This is true to some extent, but you also have to put yourself out there, tell your bosses what you want to do, how you see your future and how they might be able to accommodate this for the benefit of the business.

'You can guarantee that a calving will come in just as you are about to leave for the school nativity play'

While I carry some guilt that I should have spent more time with my children, I know that the time spent at home wiping noses and playing is finite.

Developing interest in bTB

In 2015 I started going to National Farmers’ Union branch meetings and bTB really began to permeate my life. As a vet, I had spent a large part of my time carrying out bTB testing and thought I understood the impacts of the disease. People always had a story to tell about the devastating impact bTB had had on them or someone they knew.

At the end of the day, after disclosing a reactor, I get to go home, but our farm clients live with bTB breakdowns, or the threat of a breakdown, every day.

There were a lot of myths around bTB that were talked about and perpetuated, so I made it my job to find out the truth and feed this knowledge back to the meetings.

In 2016 a local farmer encouraged me to apply to join the Bovine TB Eradication Advisory Group for England (TBEAG). While travelling to London for the interview, I remember my mum asking me a question (despite being 39, I still took my mum along for moral support). She asked if I was nervous. I said no, and I wasn’t. I knew if I didn’t get the role it was because it wasn’t for me, not that I wasn’t good enough. I knew about bTB – the issues my farmers had to deal with every day and the problems faced by the veterinary profession, and I had something to say about it.

I have enjoyed TBEAG meetings. Yes, it can be frustrating when politics get in the way of science and I have had to learn to understand this, but I am helping to make a difference and I am contributing to the eradication of bTB.

In 2017, the national bovine TB Advisory Service (TBAS) was launched and I made sure I was involved in the tender. It has given me a platform to speak publicly about bTB, which I do with sensitivity and empathy, alongside my knowledge of the science and the politics from TBEAG.

I have seen friends lose businesses and suffer mental health issues over bTB – not just farmers, it affects vets too. As a profession we have let ourselves become fatalistic and disengaged with bTB control. We should have been leading by example and encouraging farmers to control the controllable and do all they can to reduce their own risk of a bTB breakdown, which is what we do for all the other infectious diseases. I hope more and more vets and farmers will engage with all the available tools to reduce bTB in England.

Last year, I was elected as a board member of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, another amazing privilege. Two years ago I wouldn’t have even considered standing for election. I intend to ensure cattle vets are at the forefront of bTB policy and animal health and welfare within politics.

Professionally, the past three years of my life have been the best yet, but personally they have been tough. I left my husband, for all sorts of reasons, and while being a full-time vet and a full-time mum is a challenge, I feel that I have a good work-life balance and as a family we are much happier.

Life happens – we have to get on with it by making decisions that are right for us and our families. I have the balance of still being at the dirty end, literally, of farm vetting, and travelling around the country meeting vets and farmers and sharing the TBAS word.

Top tips

My top tips for any vet are:

• Enjoy your job – if you don’t, think what job you would love and what it looks like – go and find it, or perhaps even ask for it. Don’t leave the profession, there is a role for everyone.

• Spend time with your young children – some days it feels like it will never end, but it is such a short period of your life. Enjoy it, your career will still be there when your children are older.

• Communicate – talk to people, use every opportunity to find out about others, give people your contact details and when they give you theirs, use them! Don’t be intimidated by big personalities. Last month I trained a vet 10 years my senior, who had run a course I had attended as a recent graduate – he was one of the first to congratulate me when I was presented with my award.

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