A new clinic, a new team and….a new car (or something like that….)

Once again I am finding myself in new surroundings – the clinic in a recently converted industrial building houses some 60 staff, which includes this time some colleagues from Portugal. In addition to this some German colleagues are occasionally drafted in from Östersund to help out.

I find it interesting to observe the dynamic of Swedish teams that are integrating the cultural and educational background of colleagues from other nationalities into their working routines. Frequently individual clinics seem to prefer or are ending up with a group of vets from a specific country: in Kumla I found a fair number of French colleagues, Falun favored the Brits and here it was the above mentioned combination.

A new clinic also means a new uniform, a new practice management system (now once again in Swedish, rather than in English or in German), a new set of passwords (don’t we just love them…..), a lot of new names to learn (including an over representation of Annas, Lena/Linas and Åsas this time) and a new uniform – this time a set of blue and white scrubs which turned out to be a good match for the colour of my hair…..

The clinic is extremely spacious, featuring 16+ consulting rooms, a large reception area plus a separate area for feline patients. A state-of-the-art ultrasound machine is inviting to play with, as well as direct digital radiography machines (similar to, but much better than in Virginia Water) and as already mentioned a CT, which appears to become the standard in clinics of this size.

As it turns out, Sundsvall Djursjukhuset is one of only a few clinics left in Sweden that is providing a true 24/7 service which results in animal owners traveling huge distances to get their canine and feline companions treated, especially at nights or on weekends.

One of the first patients I was presented with was a Jämthund that had sustained a jaw and a couple of rib fractures after getting too close to a moose – an as I now found out common set of injuries for this sort of encounter…. His owner had driven over 300 km on mostly countryside lanes to reach us…..

Swedish veterinary clinics are constantly concerned about the mental and the physical wellbeing of their staff. Because of that there will always be tea and coffee in ample supply plus a couple of huge refrigerators for the storage of personal food and for large quantities of cheese and spread which together with traditional flat bread are provided free of charge to all employees at any time of the day and night.

If you haven’t brought your warm lunch or dinner, don’t despair – another couple of industrial freezers is stocked up to the brim with frozen ready meals, which are not for free, but that can be obtained at whole sale prices.

Which mug would you pick when starting a new job ?!……Difficult choice…..

To add to these physical wellbeing efforts, the large cafeteria features a quiet corner where a large massage chair appears to be in frequent use.

Another novelty for me is a whole floor dedicated for the accommodation of the dogs of all team members. With most employees being dog owners (of often two or three sizable dogs) this is an important perk not a lot of other employers can offer. As a result the number of staff dogs frequently surpass the number of canine patients.

So now I have a house, a decent place to work at and what was still missing?……a car to get around with!

As I had not traveled with my own car that far North at this time of the year, I had insisted that this was a basic requirement, considering the distances that have to be covered in this part of the world. However, I had also indicated that I wouldn’t care what car I would get, as long as it was somewhat reliable and as long as it featured some heating.

What I asked for, I got and admittedly it was love at first sight !…..

When asking Markus at the end of the day about by “Porsche”, he presented me with a key with a fob for “The Beast” – the clinic’s all purpose mini-van!

This car, which was certainly not a head turner, featured everythingI needed :

Decent tires with spikes (!), an engine heater (hence the fob on the key ring) for a reliably working diesel aggregate, a working radio permanently set (by me) on a local station that was playing the best rock music of the Seventies to the Nineties and a large loading bay that would later become handy for my skis. The cracked windscreen and the odd dent in the body work I considered as an additional plus, as it was indicating that this was a working vehicle and not a show room car. I much appreciated though that the dodgy brakes which apparently were also a perennial feature of this carriage had just been fixed.

So someone over here was interested in me staying alive – at least for the duration of my stay…

Arrival in Norrland

While in my dreams still on the descend from Triglav, I am waking up just in time for the train’s arrival in Sundsvall. Not to get off here would have resulted in a time consuming detour, as the next stop would have been Östersund – 200 km to the West….

Hauling my considerable luggage down the platform, my pass is suddenly blocked by a 2m bearded giant in a high Hi-vis overall….

“Hej, you must be Wolfgang !” my welcome committee says in a deep voice, ” I am Marcus – I was told to collect you and to bring you to “the house”….”

“Nice” I thought and after Marcus had disposed my bag into the boot of his Japanese All-Terrain vehicle, with not more than two fingers of his left hand, we hit the road.

It turned out that Marcus came from Kiruna in the “very” far North of Sweden; a town that is famous for its iron-ore and where everything – including its people – need to be a bit bigger and tougher than the rest of the country to withstand the extreme weather in the winter (that at least is what I am telling myself….)……

At the clinic Marcus works as the caretaker, the fixer of pretty much everything broken and he is in charge of health and safety. And as if this wasn’t enough already, he was also a member of the local life boat crew and in fact “on call” that evening.

Without a nautical emergency “call out” we arrived after a short journey first at the clinic – the place of work for circa 60 vets, nurses and support staff – and Marcus gave me a short guided tour of the place, which with so little daylight at this time of the year reminded me more of a ship or a polar station.

I was pleasantly surprised that it featured a set of state of the art operating theatres, digital radiography and even a CT, plus – also very important – a spacious cafeteria with an industrial sized coffee machine, where the black stuff was available in decent quality and quantity pretty much at any time of the day (and night…). Once Marcus had ticked off his H&S duties including advising me that the local electrician would suffer a nervous break down, if I would attempt to address a fire at the main fuse board with a foam extinguisher (which I had somewhat guessed….), we continued our journey to “the house”…..

“The house” as it turned out is quite a place….a beautiful bungalow right at the edge of the forest and at the bottom of a downhill skiing slope (more about this another time….). The place has a large kitchen, two (!) living rooms, a huge TV screen, an excellent working broadband connection and even a large jacuzzi outside (though frozen solid at the moment…). In addition to this it has five individual bedrooms, all of which include extra mattresses for dogs of all sizes!…..

The down- or (in my case being a pretty social individual) upside was, that you are never or seldom alone in the house, as all non-resident vets, nurses and other visitors live here as well and most of the time people turn up – usually together with one to three dogs – and then disappear again without any prior warning.

In the beginning I had to get used to it, that while sitting in front of the television set, suddenly someone was standing next to me or that when I was coming home from work at night, I found strangers fallen asleep on the sofa in the living room…..

It is great though meeting new team members already over breakfast in our kitchen and it turns out to be wise to always prepare dinner for two or for three, as you never know who else might be turning up.

But where are all these people coming from ?…..

Some are colleagues who normally worked in our branch clinics in Jämtland just 20 Swedish Miles (= 200km !….) away – it is somewhat understandable that they are not overly keen to cover that distance twice daily if they are working a shift in Sundsvall. Traveling these distances to work or – as I soon found out – to see a vet is nothing unusual in this part of the world.

Others arrive from much further away in the South and usually stay then for a whole week.

And then there are the more unusual or adventurous types like me ( and so far only me….) who travel through 1/2 of Europe to make it a whole month – or more – to experience the beginning of winter in the North…..

Triglav

” So, tell me about Triglav.” I said to Neca Jerkovic, who was living on a sailing boat in the Marina of Portoroz, while my skin was drying after a swim in the Mediterranian Sea, “I want to be up there by tomorrow afternoon….”.

This probably requires a bit of background information….

Triglav with nearly 3000 m altitude is Slovenia’s highest and also its National mountain, placed in the center of a national park right at the border to Austria. There are only a few places in the world where you can swim in the sea in the morning and stand on the country’s highest mountain on the same day – Mulhacén in the Sierra Nevada and Galdhøpiggen in Jotunheimen are a few other examples. Climbing Triglav is not only a thing you have to do if you want to experience Slovenia, it is also a rite of passage for Slovenians themselves.

Despite the fact that her parents own a sailing boat, Neca is really a child of the mountains and I found it always useful to listen to the locals before embarking on a new challenge in an environment I was not familiar with.

“It is quite a walk, but the weather is supposed to be good and you will be fine. Are you good with heights ?”

“It don’t like them, but I can handle them. Do I need any climbing equipment ?”

“No – if you have some good hiking boots you will be fine!……”

And this was the last time that I listened to local advice…….

The sun hadn’t risen the next day when I immersed myself in the warm water of the Gulf of Trieste, before hitting the motorway due North…..

After a brief breakfast at a roadside cafe in Bled, I reached the trail head near the ski shooting stadium in Pokljuka where I left my car at the end of a dirt track with the strong hope that I would not find it on four bricks and without the tires upon my return……(so far this has never happened to me, but it is something you should never talk about or you might jinx it…..).

On a well signed-posted track it took me only a couple of hours to reach Vodnikov Dom, a beautifully located mountain hut which I had visited a few years ago in the late autumn together with a Croatian mountain guide, but by that time there was already too much snow so that she deemed it safer for us to turn.

With hindsight this was clearly the right decision, as right after this hut, the first exposed sections with steel wires and with individual safety holds in the walls started. However, with a blue sky and with dry and warm conditions it was not a problem this time and I made good progress to Planika Dom, another refuge resting on a rocky ledge, just a few hundred meters below the summit. This place has absolutely no natural water supply and all drinking water has to be carried up the trail. Washing facilities are none existent….

After checking in at the hut, I reduced my equipment, had a drink and “hit” the mountain again – just another 400+ altitude meters – how hard could that be ?…..

It unsettled me slightly that most – but not all – people who were coming towards me were equipped with helmets and Via Ferrata harnesses featuring a double set of solid karabiners. The people without this equipment – to make matters worse – didn’t look like experienced mountaineers…..

Soon I reached the first overhangs and the vertical sections which would have been difficult to scale without the solid steel ropes anchored into the wall.

While being faced with another challenging climb, I started to fall into the trap that has caused a lot of accidents in the mountains: although I was not sure if I could do the next section, I was just too lazy to turn around because I had gotten so far already….

The ascents became more extreme the further I went and I was happy that I was only responsible for myself. What kept me going was that the weather was great, there were a few other people around and once in a while I came across another idiot who had seemingly managed the ascent without the necessary gear as well.

Eventually the small tin box, that is such a well known feature of the summit, came into sight and after nearly three hours of climbing, I finally was able to rest in front of it.

The view on this day was truly breathtaking and well worth the effort, but probably not worth the risk taken.

Another mistake of mine was to think that going downhill would now be much faster…being well aware that more accidents happen on this part of a climb, I was extra cautious and looking now downhill, I came across several sections where I wasn’t sure how I had managed them uphill in the first place.

Moving them downhill was only possible by focusing just on the rock features in front of me and by having blind faith, that if it had worked on the way up, it must also do so on the way down…..

Finally, just when the sun was setting, I reached the ledge of Planika Dom and with that the safety of the hut, especially as the outside temperature was now dropping fast.

The hut was packed, with dinner served in three sittings and with all the mattresses taken in the dormitories (I had bed number 30 in one small room…).

With beer now seemingly being the main liquid to replenish any fluid deficits (remember, there was not even tap water…), the atmosphere became progressively jolly and all Covid restrictions – if there were any in the first place….- went by the way side. Admittedly and as I really had no choice to go elsewhere, other than freezing to death or breaking my neck outside in the darkness, I decided to just enjoy my time at the hut and to rely on my double Astra-Zeneca jabs……

I can’t deny that it was a brilliant feeling being in a mountain hut with simple but good food, with something to drink and to enjoy the time with a lot of likeminded people from other parts of Europe.

My hangover the next morning was not so much due to the amount of alcohol I had (probably a couple of beers ?!), but more so due to dehydration as there was absolutely no drop of water to be found once the shutters had come down at the bar over night. A minor detail that I had overlooked……

Well, I survived and while enjoying the view of the mountain peaks around me the next morning, while the countryside below was covered by a blanket of clouds, I started on the final descend trying to reach Ljubljana and one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists in time.

Sure enough, about 4-5 days later I developed a slight fever and a nasty cough, but four lateral flow tests (the first I performed on my trip to see Ana) and a PCR test failed to confirm my fear that the virus had finally caught up with me as well, but I think that it highlighted the sad reality that some simple human pleasures like a night in a mountain hut will probably have to wait until next summer.

Slovenia

It is the last day of August and the weather in Bavaria is dismal ……….but looking on the bright side, the COVID incidence figures in most European countries remain low and with the borders open, I have decided to take full advantage of the geographical uniqueness of the Alps – just three hours drive away, passing some dramatic mountain landscapes and traveling through one of the longest tunnels in Europe, the weather has changed to this:

Finally I am coming good on my promise to visit a few friends and colleagues in Slovenia……

Gliding in my by now slowly aging carriage (with right hand steering of course…) through a picture postcard landscape, I am passing Ljubljana and I am heading further South, where my first stop is the animal clinic of Postojna, a referral center for veterinary cancer patients from Northern Italy and from the Balkan countries.

A team of dedicated veterinary professionals are providing here high end diagnostic and therapeutic procedures for canine and feline patients.

Underneath one roof the center houses radiography, CT and MRI imaging facilities and patients can be treated surgically, with chemo and with radiation therapy at a level which equals the care provided to human patients.

Numerous photos and notes from grateful owners are lining the walls in the waiting room.

My journey continues further South to the little stretch of Mediterranian coastline which Slovenia calls its own. At the Hotel Marina, right next to the little habour of Izola my local colleague Lara Kralj has reserved a room for me and the day is finished off in style with local seafood and regional wine.

The next day I have been invited to visit Lara’s clinic, where her all female team is providing first and second opinion care for the local pets, which includes a fair amount of patients coming over the border from nearby Trieste. All team members seem to be bi- (or probably tri-) lingual communicating with pet owners in Slovenian, Italian and in English.

I am having my first (thankfully not direct) encounter with emetic eyedrops and with an entero-protectant developed by the Russian army. You might think that you have seen it all and along come developments you didn’t even imagined would be useful…..

I also notice the close proximity to Italy both in the more colorful outfits of the team (compare this to the plane and possibly somewhat dated dark green of British VN uniforms…) and even in the body dressings of the patients following surgery, which , I think, were real fashion statements.

Once I had a guided tour of Lara’s place and after we had finished the day’s surgical list, Lara took me for lunch to her favourite seafood place right by the marina and I couldn’t help being envious about all the amenities that the location of her clinic offered.

I then had the opportunity of visiting the famous Salina of Secoveljske which is right at the border to Croatia and which made a great background for some nice sun set images.

The next stop on my “Veterinary Tour of Slovenia” had to be the Vet school in Ljubljana where one of my veterinary heroes – Ana Nemec – one of Europe’s finest veterinary dentists, was already waiting for me (I was a bit late coming from an little alpine detour, but more about that another time….). Ana had been helpful with a lot of tips and practical advice for my own cases in Virginia Water and we had been communicating already for a few years, before meeting for the first time in person by coincidentally sharing a taxi a couple of years ago in Thessaloniki. Ana is not only an outstanding dentist, she also seems to run a secret branch of the Slovenian tourist office judging by the stunning mountain landscapes she is posting on a regular basis on her social media sites.

A joint photo at her purpose built dentistry table – a place from where countless veterinary students and graduates from all over the world were educated online about veterinary dentistry – was a must, before here too I was treated to an excellent lunch in the historic centre of the Slovenian capital.

After meeting with some more colleagues in Ljublana in the evening (yes, more wine and great food was involved….), it was an early start on the next morning as I was heading to the North Eastern corner of this small country. After 2 hours driving I was standing in front of an architectural statement that would have made Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement proud – the clinic of Natalia Hercog Gerbec in Maribor.

This is what happens I thought, when veterinary medicine is meeting with the love of art and interior design: a place both humans and animals feel comfortable in. We often forget that or clinics are the place where we as vets will spend probably the longest time of our lives at and only a few of us try (but all too often fail….) to make it more than just a set of functional rooms with a lot of pipes and cables running along the wall and stuffed with various machinery.

Natalia’s love for warm colors on a white background, combined with small playful features or with famous quotes, keeps the eye busy and provides a calming ambience despite the functional outline of the building. You can’t help feeling inspired and wanting to change something in your own home after visiting Natalia’s clinic.

My trip to Slovenia finished in truly Mediterranean style, with some more wine and with home made food at the mountain hut of Neca Jerkovic in the forest near Pokljuka, which became a rather crowded place with so many veterinarians and with Neca’s price winning family of Great Swiss Mountain dogs all under one roof.

The hiking together with these gentle giants the next day in the Triglav National Park was the icing on the cake for the by then exhausted traveler and it was hard to leave this small but so beautiful country behind at the end of a so memorable week among friends.

Heading North – again…..

I am sitting in a train heading from Stockholm 400 km further North along the Gulf of Bothnia to Sundsvall, a town of less than 60 000 inhabitants that had based its wealth on timber.

Despite its limited size, the place has a busy veterinary emergency clinic which is taking in small animal patients from a radius of up to 300 km. The clinic – and a wooden bungalow right next to the forest and to a ski slope…- will be my home for the next 4 weeks.

I had not more than a couple of hours sleep last night and my day had started this morning at 4 am in Munich with my first flight after nearly a year,

and while the forest outside the train window is slowly disappearing in the fading daylight, I am beginning to doze off with my memories returning to a rainy morning at the end of August……..

To write for a living ?….

It is 5.30 in the morning and its done……

With the coffee machine working overtime and our Vizsla snoring peacefully on the floor next to my desk, I am sitting in front of 71 pages plus eight appendices of an advisory job, which I had taken on to try my hands on a completely new task (no scalpel involved this time).

For the last six weeks I have pretty much been glued to my desk, studying veterinary legislation, pet owner demographics, have spoken to a large number of veterinary organisations and colleagues, have fought with spreadsheets and with power point presentations with running (not fast enough) and walking the dog (not often enough) on most days the only interruption.

When I started this task, I had several moments when I had severe doubts that I could do it, partially because it was a lot of work to do, partially because in the beginning I didn’t have the skill set to do it. What helped me through it in the end was to compare the whole task to the climbing of a mountain: prepare yourself as good as you can, have a decent plan how it could work, break the journey up into many small sections, have the company of good friends and helpful strangers, hope for some good luck and for even better weather and then start walking…..

At the moment I have no idea if the final result will be well received, but at least I have managed to finish it a week ahead of schedule (but still five days behind my personal dead line……) and now it is time for a reward:

A book !

And in this case not just any kind of book….

Christina Loggia, together with her husband Angelo one of my favorite feline clients in Virginia Water, had made good use of the last 18 months of restrictions by writing her first novel. Without knowing it, she chose one of my favorite genres: a second world war spy thriller which – even better – is set in Italy.

I had ordered my copy already weeks ago, but I didn’t touch it because I knew that it would be too much of a distraction once I had started to read it and it made an excellent “carrot” to aim for by finishing this job.

Even better – after a few hours of sleep we got into the car and a short while later I was sitting in Christina’s and Angelo’s living room in a Berkshire village to get my own copy signed by the author !

The novel is starting in the heat of the desert of North Africa – an excellent choice for a novel, but so, so different from my next adventure……

Gran Paradiso

It was still early in the morning and the sun was about to rise over Punta Feuillaz in the East. A thin layer of snow was covering the ground which was not unusual in September at 2500m above sea level and despite a double layer of warm clothes, Vittorio Emanuele was still cold. He was asking himself if it really was a royal privilege to hunt one of the rarest animals on the planet in such an inhospitable environment.

Riding and then walking up the well maintained mountain pass from Cogne together with his hunting party the previous day, he had spent the night in the simple hunting lodge in the Ciamosseretto Valley, which was more suitable for a goat herder than for the King of Italy. At least the food that had been brought up from the valley and the Piedmontese wine had been excellent and Guiseppe, the leader of the fifty gamekeepers he kept employed in the royal hunting reserve had assured him that his chances of getting another fine trophy were excellent this season.

The game in question was the elusive “Capricorno”, the Alpine Ibex, which had nearly been hunted to extinction by 1856, but by now – 14 years later – the initial stock of just over 50 animals had recovered well and his hunting party might be able to finish the day with more than ten kills, leaving the finest specimen – of course – to their royal patron.

And as the sun was starting to meld the snow, he knew that it would be a fine day after all……

It was still dark at 5.30 when I left the hotel in the center of Aosta to cover the short journey to Cogne more than 150 years later for a long overdue visit to Italy’s first and so famous National Park. Surrounded by some of Europe’s highest mountains and wedged into the far Northwest corner of the country with both France and Switzerland just a short distance away, Gran Paradiso is offering not only great hiking and climbing opportunities, but also some of the least disturbed alpine flora and fauna.

Walking in the foot steps of Vittorio Emanuele, who was “only” the King of Sardinia-Piedmont when establishing the royal hunting reserve and by this saving the ibex, I started my trip in the small mountain village of Valmontey and benefiting from the also today well maintained path, I was able to cover the over 1000 altitude meters to the hunting lodge in less than 2 hours.

The early start had been a wise move, as the East facing track was at all times in the shade of the mountain range on the other side of the valley.

The hunting lodge serves now as a mountain refuge and as the breakfast for the overnight guests had just finished, the only food to be had was the customary cappuccino and a slice of homemade blueberry cake. To avoid having to ask for another coffee later, I ordered two cappuccini right away with the result that I also received two slices of cake…..

There was no point in arguing and as I still had a lot of hiking ahead of me, I was pretty certain that I would burn off the calories anyway.

It was still early in the day and as the weather was perfect and as I hadn’t spotted an ibex so far, I decided to press on in the same direction to the Col du Lauson

and to the Punta del Tuf at nearly 3400m, allowing a stunning view of Gran Paradiso itself at 4026m and of most of the National Park.

Retracing my steps back to the refuge, I was finally rewarded with a view of a whole herd of young ibexes crossing the path not far away from me.

Heading then South, the trail led around the Bec du Vallon before descending steeply into the glacier valley below.

With hindsight I was happy that no dogs were allowed in the park, as the path was at times very exposed with some sheer drops allowing no room for errors.

The views of the remaining glacier tongues which once must have fed into a giant glacier filling the whole valley were truly breathtaking and reminded me of sections of the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.

Also walking eventually along the Torrent Valmontey, which is purely fed by the melting water of the glaciers felt somewhat like walking through the Rocky Mountains, just with less of a chance of bumping into a bear…..

When I arrived back in the village, I had covered over 30 km on hiking tracks and just under 2000m of ascend and descend, I had seen some great wildlife and probably one of Europe’s most stunning views and I was grateful for the hunting passion of a monarch nearly two centuries ago.

Surrey Practice Days

It was now the middle of the summer and the river of life had washed me back on to British shores, where the tsunami of “Pandemic Puppies” had caused a huge demand for veterinary professionals.

This times I was not alone though, as just before my departure from the continent I was re-united with Mia, our Hungarian Vizsla, who like me was missing all our British friends and – in Mia’s case – all her “surrogate pet parents” who took her on far more interesting walks than I ever did….

To keep myself busy, it needed only a couple of messages to some Polish friends of mine (some of the few that had stayed behind following Brexit….) and I had secured some locum work with the lovely teams at Alder’s and Croft’s Vets near Guildford – so just on my door step.

Both clinics have a long history with very charismatic practice owners and they are very established institutions in the local communities. Similar to my own clinic in Virginia Water, these practices had been sold to a corporate owner and young and enthusiastic teams of vets and technicians were making these places now fit for the demands of the 21st century.

Alder’s Vets was a busy practice in a pre-dominantly working class area, just next to a little pet shop, a convenience store and a fish-and-chips shop on a busy road just opposite of a petrol station. The building was cracking at its seams, with tinny rooms and vets, nurses and patients squeezing past another. With everyone being courteous and happy to help each other, there was a real ‘buzz’ in the place and I absolutely loved it.

Once again I realized that there are not a lot of jobs in the world where you are getting paid while cuddling puppies and kittens……

Even better was that Mia found a new “family” with the office staff, meaning that she too was looking forward to going to work every day.

Croft’s Vets is situated in walking distance of the village center of Haslemere, one of my favourite places in England, which can be described as “picture postcard” Surrey. There are still a lot of – very expensive – little cottages and plenty of coffee and tea rooms and even a still thriving bookshop. The scenery is dominated by groups of middle- aged ramblers and cyclists on high end mountain and road bikes desperate to get their caffeine fix.

Here we are in Labrador and Golden Retriever country, with only a few French Bulldogs in sight…

The clinic – with an over 100 year old history as a veterinary practice – was an amalgamation of modern and historic features with sculptures of a jolly pig and of a giant rabbit in the front garden.

Stepping into the waiting room you soon appreciate that the wife of the former owner was an interior designer, with the avian motifs of the wall paper and of the clock harmonizing well with the parquet flooring and the antique furniture, but yet blending well with the modern logo and the glass entrance door.

It was a delight to consult in the well lit examination rooms with their high ceilings and providing enough space to allow for the first face-to-face consultations with pet owners present in over a year.

Life over here was not quite as busy as at the sister practice, so that in my lunch breaks there was even time to walk Mia on the nearby hiking trail and to relax with a coffee and a newspaper in the village center.

A great plus was also the proximity of Haslemere to the “Devil’s Punchbowl” – a nature reserved owned by the National Trust which made for great evening runs after days spent in the foot steps of Crofts and Alders….

“Nanny” Burdinski

It is 12 noon and following a few consultations and a bitch spay, it is time for a communal lunch. The table is laid out with silver cutlery and as it is a Friday, fish (of course….) is on the menu. The usual knives have been replaced with fish knives, which are accompanied with a little bench to avoid that the blade is soiling the table cloth if – for whatever reason – it is not resting on the plate after use. In tune with today’s main course – pike dumplings with potatoes, seasonal vegetables and a white sauce – the plates have a sea life motif and both water and white wine are served. It is probably superfluous to mention that the napkins are colour coordinated with the table cloth. The spoons at the head end of the plates had indicated that we could expect three courses (we had starting off with a seasonal asparagus soup) and this would possibly be followed by a strong coffee and a slice of home baked cake, before we would start with our afternoon consultations.

All members of the house hold, including the casual gardener, are gathered around the table and responsible for this daily treat is Nanny Burdinski, a youthful octogenarian and the mother of my friend Luz.

What might appear alien to most of my readers today, was a very common occurrence in many veterinary practices all over Germany in the twentieth century and in some places this way of life has survived until today, but it would not have been possible without the kindness and care of – in most cases- the wives of veterinarians, or – less commonly – of a dedicated house keeper.

As already mentioned in my last entry, Nanny and I met many years ago when I was an undergraduate at vet school. Nanny, one of the few fully trained veterinary technicians at that time and her veterinary husband Kurt ran a busy large animal practice on the countryside near Hamburg. This often required the full commitment of the whole family. As it was still a time without mobil communication, this particularly involved the guarding of the practice phone and I vividly remember my first visit to the Burdinski household, when Nanny proudly showed off their new cordless (!) phone which had a proven reach of 200m – just long enough to allow her to take it with her to the edge of the nearby lake to be able to go for a short swim…….

As much as I admired Nanny’s commitment and the “ground breaking” technology, it also made it quite clear to me, that regardless how my professional future would look like, I would never accept it, that my own partner might end up in a similar position. For many decades until then, the wives of veterinarians (there were not a lot of female practice owners around at that time…) had been taken for granted as – often unpaid – telephone operators, veterinary nurses, catering staff and practice managers. Even until very recently veterinary positions had been advertised with a preference given to male and married applicants – with the above mentioned “employment” scenario in mind.

Nanny had gone through all of this, although in her and Kurt’s case I always saw them as equal partners and what made a huge difference was that they both embraced every opportunity to enjoy life away from their practice. They arranged their out-of-hour work with the neighboring colleagues to have regular nights out, they enjoyed cultural events and traveling and they made sure to participate in all aspects of the social programmes at veterinary conferences.

This was also the key for Nanny to find life enjoyable in retirement and even when Kurt passed away a few years ago.

Despite the decades of hard work (or possibly because of them ?….) it struck me that Nanny got the balance exactly right at this point in her life by pursuing her personal interests, while still staying connected with the business and with all generations of her family, even if this was now limited to gathering everyone for regular meal times – not always, but on most days, but always on her own terms (no mobil phones allowed and both good table manners as well as an educated conversation during meal times encouraged….).

For me the benefit was not only a culinary one, but in addition to this also the opportunity to spend a few evenings over a glass of wine with “off screen” conversations with someone with a lot of life experience – something which had been a rare occurrence since the start of the pandemic.

I also wondered if there wasn’t something that the traditional ways of running a practice had to offer to us today ?

With professional burn-outs and mental health issues being a huge issue and with many businesses struggling to maintain their staff, decelerating the pace of work, offering a more communal or even a family based environment and paying more attention to decent periods of rest and – very important – to good food, might go a long way in making both our working environment and our life in general more enjoyable.

So women like Nanny can probably still teach us a trick or two …….

Lauenburg

While I was seeing patients in Bradford in May, 700 miles away in the North of Germany a young farmer decided to overtake a bus in a bend without knowing what was ahead of him – unfortunately there was another car traveling in the opposite direction…….

In the ensuing head on collision, he not only lost his life, but also the driver of the other car sustained severe injuries and only his two dogs got away with hardly a scratch. The driver of the other car was my friend and colleague Luz Burdinski and the outcome of the accident changed both of our lives – mine admittedly just for the next few weeks.

Luz and I went back a long time and he was one of the first people I met when I arrive at vet school in Hanover. We not only lived on the same floor in student halls, we then also shared a flat, consoled each other over various relationship breakups, were in the same exam group, travelled together around the world to Hawaii and to Australia (where we among many epic encounters worked – obviously illegally – on a dairy farm in Alice Springs…), attended each others weddings and managed to stay in touch despite us working in different countries.

With other words, Luz is one of the few people you have in life who you would call a “good friend” and now he needed my help……

Unlike me, Luz grew up in a veterinary household and a few years after qualifying, he took over his parent’s practice in Lauenburg, a rural region East of Hamburg, near the board to the former GDR.

Over the years the farm practice slowly declined, but the companion animal side had flourished and the business included now a small but very neat small animal practice.

Following the accident – in which Luz had sustained a vertebral fracture – the large animal work was immediately covered by his neighboring colleagues, but it proved impossible to find a small animal vet who could jump into the breach. Time to phone a friend……

A couple of weeks (and a few COVID tests) later, I drove along the rolling countryside past fields of rape and wheat and through stretches of dense forest to the small village of Nusse, where I found a beautiful family home with an adjacent practice building, just next to a church which dated back to medieval times.

Already waiting for me was my friend’s mother “Nanny”, who I fondly remembered as an occasional visitor from our university days, and her aging Howawart.

The warm welcome as well as the brilliant weather was setting the tone for my whole stay in Lauenburg. Once I had settled in, we had coffee and home made cake in her beautiful garden and when my friend arrived, we started to plan the work ahead.

Luz had been lucky – with the help of a lot of metal work, his fracture had been stabilized and he had suffered no functional loss, but both pain and stiffness were severely limiting his ability to work.

With no qualified veterinary nurses (except a very kindhearted, but unfortunately untrained lady from the village cleaning and lending a hand in the morning) around, we agreed that Luz would be my secretary and I would perform the consults with the help of the animal owners. This would give me an insight into small animal work in Germany (which I hadn’t done for many years) and at the same time I could show my friend a few tricks and techniques to improve the services he could provide to his clients.It worked like a treat !

The following two weeks were both a journey back to veterinary medicine with the routine of the time when we had studied and it was at the same time an inspiration to all involved:

The day started at 8 o’clock in the morning with a communal breakfast, with the whole family including the teenage kids and the Polish gardener, who was a seasoned endurance athlete and a lovely man, but who for some mysterious reasons ended up once a week in A+E with the most bizarre symptoms. Thankfully he had usually recovered the next morning (in time for breakfast at Nanny’s…) and his exploits made for a lively conversation.

This was followed by morning consults and operations. The practice was very well organized and very clean, but lacked an anesthetic machine, X-Ray equipment and an endoscope, which made some procedures quite challenging.

Operations were performed with injectable anesthetics only and without a supervision nurse. Thankfully we both had been trained for this, but most younger colleagues I think would have struggled with this and admittedly gaseous anesthetics are much safer. However, in Lauenburg all our patients recovered eventually well and this included both bitch spays and caesarian sections without a loss of a single puppy.

The morning’s work was followed by a three course warm lunch, lovingly prepared by Nanny, once again on the terrace in the garden, while we were watching the farmer cutting the grass on the field nearby and the dogs enjoying themselves in the glorious sunshine.

Fortified with a cup of artisan coffee, I worked my way then through the afternoon consults, noticing how similar in the end the case load was, compared to Yorkshire or to my patients in the Southeast.

An area where I struggled though was the not uncommon request for homeopathic treatment alternatives, which certainly play a bigger role in both veterinary and human medicine in the German speaking world. As someone who believes in evidence based medicine and in the achievements of the enlightenment, I elected to remain diplomatically noncommittal on this front and decided that this might be a good route to take also in the future. This differs though from my otherwise very positive attitude towards complementary treatment options in general. A lot of my patients in Virginia Water benefited for many years from anthroposophical medicine, herbal and natural medicine, from laser treatment and from acupuncture (administered by some of my colleagues).

The evenings were spent with great runs though the rural countryside and with long open water swimming sessions (something that is enjoying great popularity at the moment in the UK) in the nearby lake, often followed by a glass of wine and a light supper in the garden, in the entertaining company of my host’s mother. More than once I had to asked myself in these days, were to find the difference between work and a wellness holiday at this stop of my journey…..