The bonds that tie


National Report - Who better to understand a veterinarian's work day than a spouse who is also a veterinarian? But is too much togetherness a good thing?

National Report — Who better to understand a veterinarian's work day than a spouse who is also a veterinarian. But is too much togetherness a good thing? Several veterinarians weigh in on working together and having a life outside of the office.

Take Drs. Tom and Karen Mertaugh of Michigan.

A lot has happened in the almost 30 years since they met at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University.

Not only did they establish the Animal Medical Center of Traverse City in Michigan in 1982, but they also have two children, a llama, horses, goats, dogs, cats, a cockatiel, one sheep, numerous fish, chickens and roosters.

"Since my wife Karen has always been my best friend, it has always been great to be with her working throughout the day," Tom says. "It is really nice to be able to talk about difficult cases or problems after a crazy day."

The Animal Medical Center of Traverse City offers everything from routine check-ups to radiological and diagnostic procedures.

"The best thing about our practice is that Karen and I have always believed that the client's animals are always treated just like our own," he adds.

And while Tom handles the PennHIP end of the practice — he is certified to take distraction radiographs of canine hips — his wife Karen takes care of the business part.

Before establishing their joint practice, the Mertaughs worked for separate clinics for a year after graduation.

"It was so much better when we struck out on our own and started our own practice," Tom says. "Everything we did, we knew it was all going into our business. It has given us great satisfaction, a wonderful working environment and a good living."

Drs. John and Avi Blake also met in school at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

"We were not necessarily unique thinkers, being one of at least four married couples generated by our class," John says.

While they both chose veterinary medicine, the Blakes followed different paths in school. Avi studied to be an equine practitioner, and John became a small-animal veterinarian.

"In fact, we never were on clinics together and studied with different groups," Avi says. "In many ways, we were not in school together, but had similar experiences while we were dating."

For the past 2½ years, John has worked in industry (Bayer) following 11 years in small-animal emergency and general practice. He works in new product development.

"The work requires the integration of my clinical and business backgrounds," he says. "Basically it starts with examining clinical problems facing pets and their people, and working with a diverse group of people in an effort to address these needs."Avi focused on her equine studies.

After her internship, she worked for a racetrack practice and then had her own ambulatory equine practice — pleasure and performance horses. She now writes and edits for veterinary journals and has written science education modules for a State of Kansas e-learning program.

"I think that being in the same profession has been an advantage for us overall," John says. "Aside from facilitating our meeting, being in the same profession has given each of us the flexibility to support each other's career shifts. And even when we both were in our internships and would talk about our cases all the time, our duties were sufficiently different that it was not a problem. She was sewing wire cuts and anesthetizing horses for colic surgeries while I was seeing cats in renal failure."

John says he is happy to report that he is the best trained bucket holder his wife has ever had.

"And I have enjoyed good conversation and a beer with more than one of her clients while she was repairing a wire cut on a field call," he says.

Avi agrees. "He is an excellent bucket holder. He follows direction well."

While the two have considered working in a mixed- or small-animal practice together, they have not yet taken on that challenge.

"I think that it can work in the right situation, but we enjoy being able to complain or rejoice about our days, simply knowing that we don't have to explain the details of why something is frustrating or satisfying. We will bounce ideas off each other or ask for a quick explanation of something we can't remember from school or journals," Avi says.

Dr. Michael Barrie, the director of Animal Health at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and his wife, Cathy Latimer, also a veterinarian, know what it's like to have similar, but different jobs.

While the two do not work together, having the same profession is usually an advantage, Barrie says.

"We can better understand what our day has been like and can pick each other's brains."

Latimer, who works for a small-animal practice, says "For the most part [having the same career] is a plus. It did take some compromises at various stages of our careers. It helped that I was happy being a general practitioner versus a specialist. I was able to move with ease as he pursued his specialty."

For Latimer, it is the special relationships with clients and co-workers; solving medical riddles and learning new procedures that keep her job exciting.

"I love that the practice evolves and that every day is truly different and essentially unpredictable," she says. "Cute kitten antics and puppy love never get old."

And while helping people say good-bye to a beloved pet is hard, Latimer says it deepens her understanding about the nature of relationships.

"It often makes me feel blessed to witness that special bond," she explains. "People often share very revealing and amazing stories about their pets as we perform euthanasia. Some of those stories stay in my head and heart a long time."

As director of animal health at the zoo, Barrie manages a department of three veterinarians (including himself), two animal health technicians and an administrative assistant. They are responsible for the health care of about 5,000 animals.

"From guppies up to elephants and everything in between — for me the best part is the animals, but it is also nice working for an institution whose mission is conservation. Generally everyone I work with is pro-save-the-planet."

Working together does present some challenges though, the vet couples say.

When the Mertaughs' children were young, they came to the clinic with Karen.

"We had to utilize daycare as they became more mobile and our clinic became busier," Tom says. "If we could do it over, we'd love to avoid daycare, but at the time there just wasn't a way around it."

Latimer agrees, adding that the long hours and irregular call duty has sometimes been a challenge on the personal life end of things.

"I chose early on to be part-time — 30 hours per week — even during the 13 years I owned my own practice," she says. "Once the kids were born, part-time made sense."

Latimer adds that one benefit of not working together is "we don't have to navigate the pragmatic issue of time off together in the same practice."

Avi points out that the veterinarian profession does offer a lot of flexibility for families.

"My current job allows me amazing freedom. I get continuing education every day, editing and searching through veterinary research for writing ideas, and yet I can simultaneously watch my children splash in a pool or stop and walk the dogs for an hour," she says. "Even when I was a general practitioner with my own equine practice, I was able to tailor my schedule and exclude emergency work when we started having children."

The married veterinarians agree that it is important to have a life outside of work.

Veterinary medicine has a way of consuming "all one's energy if not controlled," Tom says, adding that the married couple has to make a conscious effort to nurture their relationship outside of the veterinary medicine world.

"Owning our practice has allowed us to take vacations when we wanted, for the most part," he says. "That has allowed us and our two children to have some wonderful trips together to many special places."

Barrie agrees that, depending on the couple, working together is possible as long as the work life and home life are kept separate and in balance.

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