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Mentoring bridges veterinary medicine's future with its collective experiences


Young veterinarians seek and value mentoring in their schooling and in the early years of practice.

Steve Windsor looked out at the aging sign in the front of the hospital. He mused as he remembered a time when signs were considered unprofessional. When he had purchased this sign, his friends had told him that his colleagues in town had made "off the cuff" remarks about the decline of professional conduct within the profession.

This month in......

He was now amused.

Those same veterinary clinics now have outdoor signs that P.T. Barnum would be proud of. He needed a new sign. However, that was the least of his worries. He began to daydream.

Windsor Veterinary Hospital was built in 1972 shortly after Steve graduated from veterinary school. He worked hard in the rural community and by 1980 had hired two more associates, one of which was still his partner. Steve and his partner, J.D. Stallings, worked tirelessly in the community and had built up the large-animal side of the practice to about 80 percent of the total. Steve was also a proud member of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and several other associations. He had attended every annual AVMA meeting in the last 20 years.

Then, a small disaster struck. Eighteen months ago, Jeremy Snyder, an associate he had hired in 1990, suddenly had become severely disabled in an automobile accident. Jeremy, who had done both large- and small-animal medicine, would be out of the loop indefinitely. Steve was pressed. He and J.D. didn't like the small-animal side of practice much, but both had done a small share of the load to give Jeremy a break. They now needed help on both the large- and the small-animal side of practice. It would take several months to find someone.

The "someone" finally appeared in the form of a married couple — Jared and Melissa Cassidy. The Cassidy's were new graduates with little agricultural background but with fresh information from the university. They were eager to learn and immerse themselves in the new world of rural practice. Their excitement and energy seemed boundless. Jared took on the large-animal duties and Melissa had agreed to work four days per week doing the small-animal side of practice and also take an occasional large animal emergency.


"Hello, Melissa! — Jared. Hey, I'm calling from the Johnson farm. I'm hung up here with a down cow. Dr. Windsor has scheduled me with several other calls to do this afternoon, and I can't get hold a him to see if he will cover one of them. I'm not sure how to handle this particular situation, and I cannot get of hold of J.D. either. Can you call ... ?

"Hold on Jared. Nobody is here but 'yours truly' and a Bulldog I am trying to do a C-section on. I don't know where anybody is. I'll call you if I can find someone."

Jared put his phone in his pocket and looked at the cow. The farmer looked puzzled; so did Jared.

Steve and J.D. never carried cell phones. Both of their trucks carried old radios but didn't use them much. Both Steve and J.D. were direct and independent people. They were going to let Jared pretty much figure things out on his own.

Jared had overheard Steve say to J.D., "That's the best way for 'em to learn, anyway."


It was 5 p.m. Jared looked high and low in the truck and could not seem to find the bags of sulfa medicine he thought he had left over from the day before. He had been at the Franklin farm now for more than an hour, and it seemed that every time he went to his truck looking for something — it wasn't there. He had finally decided to create a checklist but hadn't really put it together yet. No one in veterinary school taught him how to organize a vet truck.

"If J.D. was here we'd, be done by now," lamented Stu Franklin.

"Sorry, Mr. Franklin," Jared says. "The other vets are at the AVMA this month, and it is just Melissa and I. Would you mind keeping those calves up another 20 minutes while I make a quick trip back to the clinic?"

Jared drove back to the clinic in a mild stupor. He thought he was doing surprising well in view of the fact that he had spent the very early hours of the day treating a colicy horse at the Randall's about a mile from the hospital.

The Randall farm was a small but proud enterprise. One of their prize Quarter Horses had gotten into the corn. Mrs. Randall had called about midnight. Both Jared and Melissa arrived and worked like a team. They remembered all the newest protocols from school, and the hospital seemed to have most of the medication on hand. It had appeared to have been a victory.

Melissa met him at the gate.

"The Randall horse is down again. They are asking about Steve and J.D."


"Steve, I need to talk to you."

"All right, give me a minute to clean up and pour a cup of coffee."

Jared fumbled with his shirt and tried to calm his nerves.

After some embarrassing false starts, Steve and Jared finally settled into a small space between the mudroom and the drug-storage room.

"Melissa and I have rethought our priorities and will need to move on."

Steve felt a shaft of numbness ascend his back and settle near the nape of his neck. He had watched Jared from a distance and noticed how well he was coming along and that in a few years would be a tremendous asset to the practice. He had chastised him from time to time when things did not go well, but basically that "came with the territory".

Finally Steve spoke and the words seem to drop like stones from his mouth.

"How come? Is it money or time off?"

Jared squirmed and thought of lying but finally summoned the courage.

"We have been here more than four months, and you have never provided training or a mentoring program for either of us to follow."

"Training — mentoring? I don't even know what you are talking about," Steve lamented softly. "Training comes in vet school, and much of the information you brought to us was very useful. Some of it is the usual 'balderdash' that originates from the ivory tower, but basically it has been helpful. What is mentoring?"

Jared didn't hear the question. He was too focused on trying to get this over. "Melissa and I don't seem to fit in here, and no one really wants to really help us to fit in here. This job pays well, and you have given us time off. Everyone is friendly, but we were just let go with no way to learn your system, and what you and your clients really wanted from us. Melissa and I expected more structure."

"I am sorry," he went on, "Melissa has taken a job closer to the city, and I'll find something. I may go back to do a residency. I don't know right now."

"Mentoring?" Steve thought.

Steve was just stupefied. He was stumped. He was also naïve in a new world he failed to understand.

Just then, Steve awoke from his long daydream of recent events. He looked at the old sign.

"J.D., I think the solution to our problems is a new sign."

A sign of the times

It is not uncommon to look at signs and get the wrong message. Steve is living in a world of yesteryear trying to understand and steer a course while looking at the road signs in the rearview mirror. A crash is inevitable.

Men, older men in particular, cling desperately to the portion of the world they helped to create. In the case of veterinary hospitals, owners have created a work environment based on the environment around them. As a general rule, the external environment changes much faster than they are willing to adapt to it. The "tried and true" methods of a few years ago are employed until further notice.

In rural America, apple pies and traditional agriculture have given way to industrialized farming.

This has had a major impact on private practice in this country over the last generation. Those that are adapting are doing fine. For others, the other shoe is waiting to drop.


Odysseus is the hero of the Greek poem "The Odyssey". When he left to fight the Trojans, he left his son with a trusted friend,


to be

taught and advised


A mentor is a wise and trusted advisor.

It is my understanding that young veterinarians seek and value a mentoring relationship in both their schooling and in the early years of private practice. This only makes sense as new graduates seeking to be successful innately realize there is likely to be a lack of congruency between years sitting in the classroom and the applied reality of private practice. In a sense, this means that newer graduates are more averse to risk and are less willing to make mistakes for the sake of "learning the ropes".

How is this different from a generation ago? Well, simply put, we lived in a simpler, more forgiving world 25 years ago. Although mistakes always have been and always will be a learning tool, mistakes encouraged for the sake of learning as a "training" mechanism is unacceptable in veterinary medicine.

A visit to the AVMA Liability Insurance Trusts Web site drives the point home.

Training and advising a young veterinarian takes time (sometimes a lot of time) from the usual duties of an experienced veterinarian. Older veterinarians wishing it otherwise won't change that fact or the need one iota.

For those out there in private practice who have been practicing veterinary medicine in a vacuum, mentoring is simply a way to connect and communicate with those that are following in your footsteps. In other words, it is a form of leadership albeit seldom employed or even valued by some in practice ownership.

Why is this? Well, what is valued by the older generation is "independence and an entrepreneurial spirit" by those around them. On the surface, this is a good thing. It is, after all, the backbone attitude that has made America prosperous and great for more than 200 years. If America and our profession are to move forward, then it must be populated by individuals that value independent thought and entrepreneurial spirit. However, what is missing is the bridge that links the vast potential of the future provided by our university graduates and the enormous collective experiences of those who are now working within the profession. This bridge is mentoring.

The now

If practitioners expect young veterinarians coming into private practice to stick around for the long haul, a culture of mentoring must prevail. This takes time and effort. However, the time spent advising and nurturing a professional career is well spent. In the process, you will gain a more valid professional working relationship and also become much more likely to transition and sell your practice to someone you know and trust.

Gaining the trust of those with which you share a profession and practice is extremely important. Moreover, communicating and engendering trust between generations is vital.

The final sign

If you want to move forward and yet look behind you, the best place to look is for the hand of the young graduate working in your shadow. Grab hold and mentor them with the sunshine of your experience and lead them to the mountaintop. And then don't look back. It will be a sign of professional maturity — a sure sign that you will be able to pass the baton.

"If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning."

— Catherine Aird

Dr. Lane is a graduate of the University of Illinois. He owns and manages two practices in southern Illinois. Dr. Lane completed a master's degree in agricultural economics in 1996. He is a speaker and author of numerous practice management articles. Dr. Lane also offers a broad range of consulting services and can be reached at david.lane@mchsi.com.

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