"Life as an endless list of possibilities for vets"
I really shouldn’t be a vet. I don’t mean that in a ‘I could have been anything’ sort of way. I mean, ‘How on earth did I end up here?’ I’m pretty sure there are a few teachers who may wonder the same.
Growing up wanting to be a vet
Like many of my colleagues I wanted to be a vet from an early age. It was just always there. No-one in my family had progressed into further education. I was a slightly above average student at a large low-achieving comprehensive. Certainly not of the academic calibre required for vet school entry.
At home, my father was a championship judge for dog obedience competitions, and my mother ran a special care neonate clinic for puppies and kittens, so I had an interesting childhood helping them both of them.
The clinic received referrals from all over the country, occasionally by helicopter, sometimes including unusual species such as a caracal lynx, which attracted local and national media attention. As a teenager I was asked to write articles on hand rearing and to give talks on the subject. The clinic became involved with the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. It was keen to collect data on the digestibility of milk formula substitutes and I was in my element helping a world-famous centre by collecting puppy poo.
At the age of 13 I did work experience at Helen Papworth’s mixed practice in Bedfordshire. That, along with avidly reading and re-reading every book in the James Herriot series confirmed that being a vet was the career for me. I had no idea of salary or career development opportunities for vets and didn’t think to ask.
Path to vet school
I am forever indebted to Helen and her assistant Sarah Wilkins for allowing me to spend so much time with them seeing practice. I was offered a place at vet school (I suspect more on glowing references than my potential academic ability). It was of little surprise, but nonetheless devastating, when I barely scraped three A levels. I was so ashamed and felt I had let my mentors down.
Through clearing, I was offered a place to read biology at King’s College, London. After a miserable year, I changed to human nutrition on a whim and came top of my year with a first-class degree and the Maude Taylor prize. I also met the elderly, but still sprightly, ‘mother of nutrition’, Elsie Widdowson, who wrote ‘Good luck in your career in nutrition’, as she signed a copy of her book for me. I cringed. My real ambition – as described by James Herriot – was still to be up to my neck in muck and placenta before ending my day over a cup of tea with Mrs Pumphrey.
"My training clicked into place and working alone increased my confidence"
After a brief skirmish with the idea of embarking on a PhD at the Institute of Child Health, I found this wasn’t for me either. I was saved by a chance meeting with a vet student at Cambridge who told me her college, Lucy Cavendish, accepted graduates with a good first degree. This was life changing for me, and I immediately applied to all the vet schools, despite having no funding and no prospect of any.
A poster in my GCSE classroom had said, ‘Obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’. My goal was firmly in place and my vision did not include the £60,000 necessary to achieve it, but as I was never asked directly about funding, I didn’t mention it either.
I accepted the offer of a place at Lucy Cavendish College and found it impossibly hard, subsisting on loans, applying for scholarships, taking any paid work I could and eventually running out of money.
I kept failing my pharmacology maths paper. It was humiliating to be asked to leave, and it was only through the efforts of a tutor who believed in me that I was able to resit the dreaded paper to enter the clinical school.
Another chance encounter landed me a part-time job that provided me with accommodation and food, without which I would not have been able to afford to continue my studies. I found life at clinical school much easier and it finally felt as if I might just make it.
Career after graduation
It is now 14 years since I graduated. Initially, I took the traditional route of a period spent working in a mixed practice followed by several stints in small animal practices, eventually heading a small team in a branch practice in Middlesex.
Suddenly things meshed, and I loved developing a previously underperforming branch while honing my business skills and establishing a loyal client base. My training clicked into place and working alone increased my confidence.
"I enjoy meeting vets and nurses and looking at the different methods they use, many of which give me ideas to help develop other practices"
One day my vet nurse suggested I join her on her sabbatical to work in the Indonesian rainforest helping to care for dogs and cats, and occasionally a sun bear or leaf monkey. I couldn’t resist. I spent four weeks dealing with a range of species and, more importantly, learning to perform referral-level surgery on my own in the middle of nowhere, with sparse equipment and few anaesthesia options. I learned a lot, adapted my skills and training, loved being outside my comfort zone and found the greatest job satisfaction I shall probably ever experience.
After the birth of my son, continuing to work in the branch practice was not feasible and we subsequently moved to Lincolnshire.
Four years ago I saw an advertisement for a part-time role with the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme (PSS) offering ideal hours for a working mother, although I felt (as always) underqualified. Here I am, nevertheless, a PSS assessor – a unique role – setting my own schedule, working mostly from home and spending a few days a month visiting and assessing practices.
I juggle this with now being a mother to three young children. I enjoy meeting vets and nurses and looking at the different methods they use, many of which give me ideas to help develop other practices. I work alone but have fantastic backup and support from the college’s PSS team and lead assessor. Regular training sessions enable us to exchange ideas and receive updates on the scheme requirements.
Promoting science to children
Last year I became a schools STEM ambassador, introducing children to careers in science, technology, engineering and maths. I took part in the Gravity Fields Festival, helping children of various abilities with science experiments. It is noticeable that teenage girls tend to lose interest in science in the classroom, but in this setting they were natural scientists. It was rewarding to see them get excited by science and I hope a least a couple may feel inspired by the experience.
Medical emergencies training
Recently I undertook community first responder (CFR) training. I now work part time for LIVES, a Lincolnshire-based charity, which supports the East Midlands Ambulance Service by providing highly trained volunteers to attend medical emergencies.
Being based in the community we can often be on scene faster than an ambulance. The training I have received and the support of my local CFRs has been excellent. I never feel out of my depth or without assistance if needed. As a Level 2 responder I can attend emergencies such as cardiac arrests, breathing difficulties and some accidents. I hope to work my way up so that I can carry drugs and be able to attend road traffic collisions and paediatric calls.
Samantha works part time for LIVES which supports the East Midlands Ambulance Service
I have found I have a natural affinity for working with human patients and it has opened my eyes to people’s lives in a way I wasn’t expecting. I am often presented with the same underlying pathology as I have seen in animals, but in a slightly different way, and in a human patient who can communicate verbally. It has added another dimension to my veterinary training and given me a new depth of understanding. And I hold my children just that little bit closer and appreciate every day a little bit more.
Vets are exceptional people
I see life as an endless list of possibilities for vets. The complex, diverse skills we gain during our training combine academic knowledge with agile minds to create exceptional people who can apply their skills in many different ways. Young vets who feel they are not happy or fulfilled shouldn’t feel trapped.
Keeping your curiosity, being aware of and responding to opportunities that may not seem an obvious fit, and doing the best job you can with the tools available may bring rewards you cannot immediately envisage.
Knock backs are inevitable if you push yourself out of your comfort zone. Learn from them and smile as you move onwards and upwards.
1988: Work experience in vet practice
1990 to 1997: Puppy and kitten clinic, Hertfordshire
1997: First class degree in nutrition, Kings College London
1998: NHS hospital pharmacy assistant, Stevenage, Hertfordshire
2005: Qualified from the University of Cambridge
2005 to 2019: Various mixed and small animal assistant positions
2010: Sabbatical leave to work for a sun bear charity in Indonesia
2010: General Practitioner Certificate in small animal surgery
2013: Self-published Bloomfield’s Manual of Puppy Hand Rearing
2014: BVA Animal Welfare Foundation area representative
2015: General Practitioner Certificate in small animal medicine (SAM)
2015 to present: RCVS Practice Standards Scheme assessor
2015: Self-funded and directed research project on canine neonate mortality and morbidity in the UK.
2016: Postgraduate Certificate, Harper Adams University
2017: Certificate in business administration
2018: Certificate in awareness of mental health problems
2018: Edward Jenner Veterinary Leadership Programme
2018: Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) schools ambassador
2018: QualSafe/LIVES FR Level 2 (community first responder)