Cross-training for work & life


You cover a lot of ground everyday, leaping personal and professional hurdles. Balance and practice will help you tread diverse terrain and become more than a well-rounded doctor-you'll be a well-rounded person.

TREADING WORK AND LIFE SUCCESSFULLY REQUIRES endurance and passion. In school, you developed as a person while you trained as a student. In the professional world, you'll continue to grow personally as you focus on progressing as a doctor, balancing your family, social, medical, managerial, and perhaps ownership interests and responsibilities. Cross-training for life and work will help you achieve balance and maintain the stability to take on new challenges and opportunities. A 2004 graduate, Dr. W. Andrew Rollo and 33-year veteran, Dr. Philip VanVranken, shared the strategies they use to achieve balance as part of a mentoring discussion they held over the course of a year. Here's how they play to their strengths and stretch to achieve more in the workplace and in life.

Playing by the clock

Dr. VanVranken: What are your week and weekend hours? Does your clinic do any emergency work. If so, how are you involved in that rotation? What hours would you work if you were king for a day?

Dr. Rollo: I work four days a week. Usually I do all surgeries on one of those days. This should be an eight-hour day, but it can creep up to 12. If an emergency comes in, then the day usually grows longer. There are no emergency hours at the hospital right now.

We've done 12-hour shifts for two months, and we're assessing this approach. When things are going well, the long hours certainly have rewards. But they're a work in progress, and we're tinkering with it as we go—we may taper them down a bit. Not surprisingly, every doctor has a different schedule that would be ideal for him or her.

If I were king for a day, I wouldn't start work until 10 a.m. This one may be a bit selfish—but I'm not a morning person. Of course, many clients wake in the morning to find their pets sick, and waiting until 10 wouldn't be acceptable in a good portion of those cases.

The best schedule for a hospital is what's best for its clientele. Since animals get sick all hours of the day, 24 hours would be ideal. That way there would be no transferring of animals to and from the emergency clinic, no "see if he's still vomiting in the morning" statements over the phone at 7 p.m., no more sleepless nights wondering how my hospitalized patients are doing. This is obviously not a reality for most practices, but something worth discussing at the very least.

Dr. VanVranken: Twelve-hour days may have been common in school, but practice is intense. Twelve hours is a long time to juggle these kinds of tasks and responsibilities. I'd vote for eight-to nine-hour days.

What else do you do?

The 10 a.m. start on a 12-hour day with a one-hour lunch would leave you with an 11 p.m. finish. So long reality TV!

My wife always said she wasn't a morning person. Then we had kids and that was the end of that. Then again, she'd say she wasn't a late-night girl either—she's never actually seen Jay Leno, except in pictures.

Dr. Rollo: My father has also told me that to become a morning person all I need to do is have a child. Despite my mother's wishes, that will have to wait for a while.

I'd like to have time for my girlfriend, my dog, and some time for me in the day. Twelve-hour days and a decent amount of sleep don't leave time for much else. It would be nice to coach water polo or join a softball team, knowing I could make a 6 p.m. practice. To make that happen, the eight- or nine-hour day would be a better fit. An even more ideal situation would be to put in four hours, take a nice lunch, and catch a Tiger's game in the afternoon. I'd say you call the person with that schedule "the boss."

The other spices of life

Dr. VanVranken: What are you doing to balance your professional, social, and family life? Are you happy with the balance? Are there goals you haven't met? Do you have something to look forward to each week—or is it all just one big blur?

Dr. Rollo: The other day my date asked what day my birthday was. I hate answering that question for two reasons: I hate getting older. And I try to treat everyday like it's my birthday. When I wake up in the morning, I need to know that I'm going to enjoy the day no matter what I'm doing. And to do that, I need balance in life so that I don't get burned out on one aspect.

In school, academics and athletics took up a lot of my time. Now work may be the academic side of my life, but it's now harder to find a release through athletics. I don't have the school team to play for anymore. So I've joined a gym and play pick-up basketball games. Sports can definitely be a nice way to relieve the stress from work.

I also value my social life. I enjoy hanging out with friends at a bar, club, or someone's house. Someday I'd like to settle down and get my mom off my back. However, my top priority right now is becoming a good doctor, and that does take time away from other things.

There are many days I've encountered a disease that I've never dealt with before. It involves a lot of reading on my own after work. The hours I work are unusual compared to my friends. We're in a service-oriented profession and need to be available when it's convenient for clients.

I understood becoming a veterinarian meant I'd work many weekends—and that can also take me away from the social scene. My friends are still learning that I'm not always available to go out on a Friday night—duty calls.

I've been blessed with a wonderful family and live 20 minutes from my parents and grandparents. I'm very lucky that I can spend time with them. They've always supported me 100 percent. They didn't even give me too hard a time when I told them I wanted to be a veterinarian. (They felt going the MD route would be more financially rewarding.) I think it's great that I can take my grandfather to lunch or have dinner with my parents.

I enjoy what I do, and I don't live for the weekend or dread Monday mornings—and not just because I work most weekends and may have Monday off anyway. For me to stay balanced, I need to complete the triangle. The three things that complete the triangle for me are education, athletics, and being creative. Every day at work I feel like I'm still getting an education. Every day that I run I'm getting in my cardiopulmonary workout. As for being creative, well, I'm writing this correspondence. But I need to work on it some more. There's always room for improvement.

Dr. VanVranken: You and I must have fallen from the same tree. I still play basketball twice a week. What a great outlet. When I'm playing, I don't think about my family, my job, or anything else for that matter. You're right: It's all about balance—family, profession, a social life. It sounds like you've really got your feet on the ground.

I want to commend you for your approach to our profession. You seem to be able to make staff members and clients happy. That's a very impressive trait. Even more important is the ability to make yourself happy. You certainly don't sound self-centered by any stretch of the imagination; but honestly, being a bit self-centered is healthy—you do the things that keep you happy.

P.S. When I play basketball my opponents are truly amazed that I'm involved in any manner whatsoever with the art of healing. I've declared the lane a "no-fly zone." I'm sure you know how that works.

Medicine and management

Dr. Rollo: How much of your job is dealing with the business side of things? Do you consider yourself a business owner or veterinarian first? Since becoming an owner, how have you adjusted? Which experience was the hardest, hiring staff, firing the first staff member, or realizing that every problem at the practice ends up being your problem?

Dr. VanVranken: Initially, I had no idea what I was doing, so everything I learned was by making a mistake—an expensive learning process. At this point, I don't think anything in business is more difficult than anything else.

We currently have a series of steps that we take in hiring, firing, and other recurring management situations. Hiring and firing on its own would require a 1,000-word dissertation, much of which can be gleaned almost entirely from past issues of Veterinary Economics. But a good approach with this is one reason some veterinarians are much more successful than others. I'm probably just like 95 percent of veterinarians in that I hang onto underperforming employees way, way too long.

To help handle things that come up, we have a practice manager, Pam Weakley. She started out as a receptionist and bookkeeper, and today she's my teammate in running Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic. If she performs her duties to 90 percent of my satisfaction, I leave her alone. I have empowered her to run our practice. If it bleeds, it's mine, if it doesn't, it's hers.

Did she get it all right the first time? No. But she has learned from every experience—just like I did. Pam is a very efficient and valuable employee. We still huddle on things daily; the employees and clients recognize that she enacts the policy that the owners at Dickman Road Veterinary Clinic lay out.

You can't be everything to everybody; empowering employees has allowed us to move upward and onward. Believe me, it wasn't easy initially, but once you get started, it gets easier. I like easier!

Realistically, I think in multi-person practices one doctor should be the medical officer and one doctor the business officer. Most individuals in our profession would tend to gravitate toward one side or the other. If no one expresses an interest in the business side, then probably an outsider should be brought in to run the operation in a responsible manner.

I've been lucky; I have great people at every level of our organization. So in many ways, I've become the orchestra leader—I can play a few instruments, but I don't have to.

Fueling your mind

Dr. Rollo: How do you feel you've grown as a doctor? Do you read journals, and have you pursued continuing education more or less as the years have gone by? How have your interests changed?

Dr. VanVranken: When I initially started the practice, it was Ruth Gurnsey—the receptionist, bookkeeper, technician, window washer, jack of all trades—and me. No kennel attendants. No veterinary technicians. This was Bootstrapping 101. During this phase, I essentially went around and watered what was wilting. We soon decided it was better to be proactive than reactive. Henceforth, we hired licensed veterinary technicians and additional associate veterinarians—some of whom eventually became owners. There was never a grand scheme, but I always felt like I knew where we wanted to be a couple of years out.

When we got to three veterinarians and two licensed technicians, a funny thing happened. My wife started a mail-order company that dealt exclusively with veterinarians. Part of her marketing program was to attend four or five national veterinary conferences per year. I attended and helped her set up her exhibit booth, and then went to the continuing education sessions. Boy! All of the sudden, I was hearing management and scientific material at an accelerated rate. My ability to run a practice and show up with the latest information and procedures went up at an exponential rate.

At that point, I made continuing education a priority for everyone in our organization. Currently, every veterinarian and licensed technician has to attend at least one major conference per year—which the practice pays for. We also have numerous in-house seminars and some evening sessions sprinkled throughout the year for the entire staff.

Look at your diploma, you may notice a bit of mold already starting to grow on the lower left-hand corner. Nothing will stimulate you like a national convention—a chance to rub shoulders with a few thousand of your colleagues in a learning atmosphere. And by all means, share as much as you can with your entire staff when you come home.

I was fortunate to have attended so many conferences early in my career, but it was somewhat by accident. It doesn't need to be an accident for you. Make it a priority. Take time to read your journals—all of them.

You played basketball in high school, and I'm sure you knew when you left it all on the court and when you didn't. You've got a long career ahead of you; try not to have any regrets when the clock reads zero.

Editors' note: Got a comment about this series? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Write to

The bottom line

Being a balanced veterinarian means identifying your professional and personal goals and finding a way to excel at both. This might mean reallocating your time to what's really important, fitting in one more thing that would make you complete, or finding a way to take out something that's making you feel overwhelmed.

Dr. Philip VanVranken

Dr. W. Andrew Rollo

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