My faith is the foundation to my life

Jonathan Anderson

At the age of nine, I was inspired by my passionately Welsh uncle Ieu to strive to become a vet. I owe him a debt of gratitude for the years of encouragement and opportunity that got me into vet school and opened up the world of equine veterinary medicine to me. 

I was a new millennial graduate in the year 2000. After graduation, I headed to southern California to pursue an equine internship, which has shaped the rest of my career. 

My year-long internship was followed by a stint at the then Rainbow Equine Clinic in North Yorkshire, where I combined three days of equine ambulatory practice each week with performing general anaesthesia for my boss – Bob Ordidge – who had a busy racehorse surgical caseload. 

I gained invaluable experience of racehorse practice, breeding work and general first-opinion practice and enjoyed the relationship with clients over a cup of tea, a scone or a bacon sandwich that punctuated the driving of many miles each day to see horses of all shapes and sizes. 

After three years of ambulatory practice, I grew increasingly frustrated by the number of horses being referred for surgical procedures that we were not able to perform. Having heard that there were no surgical residences available – anywhere – I was delighted when a letter arrived from Oregon State University inviting me to apply for a clinical fellowship in large animal medicine and surgery. 

A friend was currently in the position and a quick call to him confirmed that this might be the stepping stone into a residency that I wanted. I applied, got the position and enjoyed a wonderful year working with an eclectic and highly motivated team assisting in and performing surgery and medical procedures in all sorts of large animals – horses, goats, pot-bellied pigs, a healthy number of alpacas and llamas and the odd gazelle. 

'I combined work with my other love – mountain biking – exchanging the Yorkshire moors for the mountains of Oregon'

I was one of three clinical fellows and each of us applied to the American College of Veterinary Surgeons residency matching programme and were privileged to receive offers from veterinary schools in the USA. I combined work with my other love – mountain biking – exchanging the Yorkshire moors and the world-famous Dalby Forest for the mountains and forests of Corvallis, Oregon. I loved every moment.  

The next year, I entered the surgery residency programme at the University of California, Davis, veterinary teaching hospital. As one of eight surgical residents with a team of 12 equine surgeons, it was a place that you couldn’t help but fall in love with. Immersed in the combination of academic and clinical veterinary life, I was surrounded by a diverse and multinational team of residents, professors and clinicians involved in surgery and lameness investigations, studying to become a boarded surgeon. 

Completing my three-year residency in 2008, I stayed on as an emergency surgeon while studying for my specialist board exams. After the toughest three months of study I’ve ever done, I was relieved to pass and become an American Specialist in equine surgery.

Visa issues necessitated a move back to the UK and into a surgical role at Rainbow Equine Hospital – which had just gained its hospital status, thanks to some hard work by (soon to be partner) Moses Brennan and the visionary Alistair Nelson (partner). 

The week before I moved back to join the team at Rainbow, Alistair passed away suddenly and shockingly at the age of 46. This was a massive loss to our team and the equine veterinary community as a whole. It meant a shift in my new position to include surgery, some ambulatory racing work and taking on the advanced imaging caseload that he had so brilliantly cultivated – namely CT and nuclear scintigraphy. 

It was a steep learning curve, trying to get familiar with operating and then interpreting CT scans of heads and legs with an old NHS single slice scanner that Alistair had made work somehow. But it led to advanced imaging being at the core of the growth of the hospital.  

At the time, the hospital was a six-vet team with two vet nurses/grooms and a handful of administration/reception staff. Over the next seven years, it evolved to include an internship programme and a residency programme (with surgical, medical and now imaging residencies), and has built a team of specialists in these fields as well as equine anaesthesia. 

We also developed an equine vet nursing programme that saw us grow to a full-time vet nursing team of 14 and the necessary staff to support seven ambulatory vets and 18 hospital clinicians. As the specialist team grew, so the hospital facilities increased and we acquired an additional site to enable us to build a total capacity for 50 horses, an all-weather arena and two lameness investigation areas, as well as build an onsite equine referral laboratory staffed with six technicians. 

Partnership in the business happened for me three years after returning from the USA. The hospital had grown considerably over the years and it was then that we decided as a partnership to joint Vet Partners. We stepped back from ownership and into stewardship, becoming clinical directors with a boss for the first time for a while.

Typical day

My typical working day consists of examining lame, poorly performing or neurological horses. Some of these have been referred for advanced imaging and further investigation or treatment. I typically see five or six horses a day on appointment days. Two days a week are set aside for surgery and involve a mixture of orthopaedic and soft tissue surgeries, as well as CT myelographic procedures with my imaging colleague Jonathon Dixon. 

One of the most satisfying aspects of being a surgeon is working out what’s going on in a horse’s joint or tendon sheath and using our tools to good effect to do something about what we’re seeing, and then watching that horse stand up and walk out of the recovery box.

In between seeing horses and doing surgery, there is plenty to do – maintaining contact with referring vets and clients, completing insurance forms and reports, as well as being involved in the day-to-day running of the hospital.  

Work interests 

One of the perks of being a specialist has been the opportunity to travel and attend – as well as speak at – conferences both nationally and throughout some interesting countries that I would never usually have the opportunity to visit. Interacting with vets from other backgrounds and nationalities enriches and makes you fully appreciate just how diverse and incredible the veterinary community is. My speaking started with clinical abstracts at the British Equine Veterinary Association congress. 

I also officiate as an FEI (International Federation for Equestrian Sports) delegate at horse trials, such as Bramham and Chatsworth. These offer a different sort of veterinary oversight and the chance to work with a diverse team in a competitive environment, which I find deeply satisfying.

Christian faith

My biggest influence, and to which I credit my whole journey, is my Christian faith and, specifically, Jesus. Without Him, I wouldn’t have made it into vet school, would never have got into a residency programme, let alone passed the board exams. He has opened up new opportunities and afforded me fantastic places, countries, hospitals and people to work with and I fully believe He will continue to map out my future in the profession that I so enjoy. 

Before going into more complex surgical procedures, be it a cervical fracture or another fracture repair, I always recognise the need for a higher hand – literally. 

My faith and my crazy family (a very supportive and understanding wife and five kids, and the usual collection of pets and other animals) provides the reason for doing what I do and keeps me aware of the fact that without Him and them, I would not be able to have got to where I am today – both professionally and personally. 

He stabilises me and has enabled me to become the surgeon, clinical director, veterinary professional, speaker and boss that I am today. 

So, if I wasn’t a vet then I would be a missionary to the unreached people groups of the world – I would learn how to fly and translate and be adventurous in ways that defy most people’s ideas of fun.

Way of life

There is a challenge to our profession to recognise that while work/life balance is an important feature that we have often not got right in the past, our profession is not just a job – it is a way of life, a career that we have entered because we want to change the lives of the animals in our care and, by virtue of that, the lives of their owners. That inevitably comes with a sacrifice on our time, sometimes our patience, but the reward of that extra effort, that extra phone call, is what it can mean to the animal or the owner whom we are serving. 

'Our profession is not just a job, it is a way of life'

The veterinary profession is one in which personality and practicality in our care of animals is remembered far more than professionalism and academic or intellectual prowess. Taking initiative and being proactive in learning a new skill, doing that surgery that pushes you into a place of discomfort, being humble with what you know and quick to acknowledge when you don’t know have all helped me to not take myself too seriously. 

The profession has changed so much over the 20 years since I qualified. There are increasing demands on time, resources and expertise and maybe less unqualified respect afforded to us by our clients, but it remains a profession that endears itself to the public. 

We are in the unique position of enriching people’s lives because we have so much to offer in caring for, improving the health and prolonging the careers and lives of their animals.

In veterinary medicine, we have the most deeply satisfying and rewarding lifelong career and one that can be recommended to anyone with a love for animals.  

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