Tales from the Tail End: Adventures of a Vet in Practice

Tales from the Tail End: Adventures of a Vet in Practice

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by Emma Milne

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Misty was ecstatic to see her owner but to the nurse’s surprise her owner just stood there and said, ‘What have you done with my dog’s head?’

‘I’m sorry,’ replied the nurse, ‘what do you mean? She’s just been in for spaying.’

‘That isn’t my dog’s head. The rest of it

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Misty was ecstatic to see her owner but to the nurse’s surprise her owner just stood there and said, ‘What have you done with my dog’s head?’

‘I’m sorry,’ replied the nurse, ‘what do you mean? She’s just been in for spaying.’

‘That isn’t my dog’s head. The rest of it is my dog but you’ve put a different head on it.’

On a crisp October morning in 1996, Emma Milne started her first job as a newly qualified vet, a career captured on camera for eleven series of television’s Vets in Practice. Now she tells the full story. We discover the numerous things that can get stuck in an animal’s stomach, how to stop a cow exploding, and – the biggest truth of all – that animals are easy to deal with in comparison to their owners.

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and these Tales from the Tail End turn out to be stranger – and funnier – than you could ever have imagined…

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"Milne's fresh and engaging memoir will certainly appeal to readers who either enjoy vet recollections or remember the series." —Best Friends

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Tales from the Tail End

Adventures of a Vet in Practice

By Emma Milne

Summersdale Publishers Ltd

Copyright © 2012 Emma Milne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85765-664-3


About as much use as a kick in the ...

The kick hit me square in the pelvis. I didn't even have time to flinch because I didn't see it coming. My head was turned and I was talking to the farmer. Even if my brain had noticed the lightning-fast flash of white in my peripheral vision it would have barely made it out of its armchair and picked up its loudhailer to yell at my legs to move me out of the way before, a split second later, the cloven hoof of half a ton of disgruntled dairy cow connected with my bladder and launched me about two metres backwards. Standing, as I had been, about a metre away from her when she cast a malevolent eye over her shoulder to take aim is about as bad a place as you can be when a cow decides she didn't actually appreciate the much-talked-about hand up her backside. If you want to avoid being injured by horses and cows, you should make sure you are either well out of a surprisingly long striking distance or pressed closely against the back end. The latter may seem insane but the point is that the kick doesn't have time to wind up to its full, lethal potential and you just get a gentle nudge. Standing midway between these two places is utterly stupid and I should think the black-and-white daughter of Satan couldn't believe her luck when this fresh young graduate so kindly parked herself there and then looked in the other direction! I wouldn't have minded but I'd finished what I was doing, and the whole time I was actually furtling around in her insides she hadn't batted an eyelid. All the better to lull me in for the sucker punch, I suppose. I bet there was much hilarity and bovine guffawing over the food trough that night.

As I landed, doubled over like a human pair of kitchen tongs, I realised with a detached interest that I'd let out a primeval guttural yell without even realising it. I think it was the caveman-esque scream combined with the distance I moved not of my own free will, which had left the farmer looking ashen and open-mouthed, like a slightly stunned goldfish. I raised my head to look at him as I clutched my abdomen and, after what seemed like a very long time, he finally managed to whisper, 'Are you OK?' At this point I stood upright, mentally shook myself like a dog ridding itself of water, said, 'Yes, I'm fine,' and calmly continued what I'd been telling him about the reproductive state of his herd. I gathered my belongings, sauntered off to my car and left the farm. It wasn't until I got back to the surgery and reported what had happened to one of the two lovely ladies who brought a little sunshine into my working life and the adrenalin stopped flowing that I crumpled into a pathetic girly mess and started bawling my eyes out.

Having rung the local doctor and been told to 'keep an eye out and if you start bleeding into your urine, let me know', I started to get the inkling that, after only a month in the job, maybe being a vet wasn't going to be a bed of roses after all. As I would soon discover, this was to be one of a string of many weird and wonderful things which would happen to me over the years since starting vet school. So many of us, having devotedly watched James Herriot through our formative years, thought, 'Yes, actually I would like to spend my life with my arm up a cow's bum.' Being one of them, I strove with all my brainpower and any charm I could muster to persuade the people on the interview panels that their vet school would be so much better with me in it. But, as you'll see, life as a vet is not as straightforward, warm or fuzzy as you may have been led to believe.

* * *

I thought I'd tackle the whole cow's bum thing right from the get-go because on behalf of the profession I'd like to put it to bed here and now. From the second you make the decision, if you tell anyone you want to be a vet they will invariably within thirty seconds or so say, 'Oh, you must want to spend your life with your hand up a cow's bum.' Strange as it may seem, there is slightly more to the five-year course and the lifetime of work but, as I always say on the subject of cows' bums, you won't find many warmer places to keep your hands on a farm in the middle of winter. Having spent my five years at vet school in the warm haze of a sheltered and coddled existence, helped along by brilliant teachers, a few tyrants and quite a lot of booze, the reality of being thrust into the outside world hit me like the rounders bat I once got in the way of in primary school. I was hugely in debt and the bank and the government thought it was high time I knuckled down, stopped sponging off the taxpayers and started actually paying my way in society. Along with the prospect of a lifetime spent chipping away at my credit mountain, I also found myself positively bursting with knowledge, and desperate to start saving lives and cutting into people's animals, preferably with their permission and for a genuine reason! Now all I needed was a job.

There is a weekly publication called the Veterinary Record, where accomplished vets with more letters after their names than friends (yes, jealousy is an ugly thing!) like to get their research published. Most of the articles are so scientific and densely packed with charts, graphs and very long words that to the mere mortals of the veterinary world they are indecipherable, but the Record is also the place to go to find a job. The vacant positions are found towards the back, and, along with the obituaries, are the most thumbed pages of the publication. One of the brilliant things about being a vet is that you can take the work wherever you want to go. I had no mortgage, no kids and the whole world was at my feet. But I did have a boyfriend and said boyfriend liked to surf and had already got a job in Bideford in Devon. The world receded to a small corner of the country unless I wanted to jettison the boyfriend, but I liked him a lot and so I started scouring the south-west for a job. I found one that was close enough to be reasonable. So my little world suddenly became a dot on the edge of Exmoor called Dulverton.

Dulverton is a picture-postcard village and the practice that had saved my relationship was offering what we call 'a very mixed job'. This means a practice which caters for the needs of large and small animals alike and, in their case, this probably erred very slightly on the side of farm work. I was looking for a mixed job, like many new graduates, because I hadn't decided yet what I'd like to specialise in and wanted to get a good all-round taster of what it was all about.

The basic salary was pretty low, but with accommodation provided and good money towards a car on top, the whole package was enough to make a totally skint former student's eyes pop out and conjure up images of a grand lifestyle. As I hastily accepted the job for fear it would vanish before my eyes, I reluctantly had to admit to myself that it was time to say goodbye to my good friend Billy.

I loved Billy dearly and he had been with me through thick and thin during my last two years at university. He had stoically taken everything I had burdened him with, had never minded my moods and had always done his best to help me get to where I needed to be in life. But the sad truth was that my clapped-out, faithful little black Mini just wasn't up to farm work on Exmoor. I could have piled the equipment in the back seat, as I had with my worldly possessions in between term times for the trek back and forth between Kent and Bristol, but the fact was that navigating the shallowest of puddles now caused an inevitable flooding of the gubbins under the bonnet followed by immediate engine failure. Throughout the holidays from university he'd loyally taken me all over the country 'seeing practice'. This is what all vet students have to do and simply means we get to shadow (or intensely annoy) 'real' vets at their places of work. It gives students a good idea of the day-to-day business of vetting and also allows for extra hands-on experience before being unleashed into the real world. For the last few months of seeing practice I had had to hang out of Billy's door and 'skateboard' him down the hill outside my parents' house to get enough momentum to bump-start him every day. He had to go.

My dad said he'd take him as a runabout so at least I knew he would be in safe hands with the family. I agreed on the strict understanding that my pesky sister Alice, seven years my junior and just learning to drive, was under no circumstances to get her thieving and irresponsible young hands on him. I must have been out of the house for about thirty seconds before he was handed over to the toerag. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. When I left to go to uni in the first place I was told solemnly that 'your bedroom will always be there for you. It will always be yours as long as you want it.' The first weekend I came home I found that Alice had bloody moved into it from the room she 'cosily' shared with our youngest sister, Rebecca, and I was now relegated to the bed-settee in the lounge. I was starting to realise that it's true what they say: families — you can't live with 'em, you can't kill 'em!

I arrived in the village of Dulverton in 1996 as a wide-eyed twenty-four-year-old with my few possessions in a shiny new second-hand car. I was very vocally joined on my journey by my three-legged cat Charlie, who had found his way into my life while I was doing a few weeks' locum work after qualifying. The house that came with the job was down a small row, which ran along an alley perpendicular to the main road. I had to double-park to get anywhere near the place and was worried about being arrested and carted off before I managed to start work. I stopped a woman in the street and asked her if she thought it would be OK to park there while I unloaded a few things. Her immediate reply was, 'Oh, you must be the new vet then.' I flicked my eyes from one side to the other in a rather fearful glance for some clue as to how this total stranger knew who I was and, finding nothing, managed a weak smile and confirmed her suspicions. It seemed that Dulverton was going to be one of those places where people knew your business before you did.

Mum and Dad were planning to stay the weekend to help me find my feet in the village and celebrate the move, but the celebrations were quickly put on hold when we discovered to our horror that Charlie had legged it (or limped it) into foreign and unknown territory. I had visions of my poor disabled half-grown kitten sheltering alone in the damp recesses of this strange new place, and of me never being able to find him. After a family search party, which included a lot of tin-can-banging and name-calling, and the enlisting of several very helpful and eager villagers, we had to admit defeat. We went home depressed and sat in a draughty house with the front door open in the hope that he would somehow find his way back.

After what seemed like hours I was sure I had heard his very distinct and plaintive meow. I told everyone to be quiet. We all strained to listen and after a few minutes there it was again. We were sure of it now but where was he? I walked slowly and painstakingly round the house, pausing until I heard the next sound, until I finally narrowed it down to a bedroom upstairs. There I found a terrified and hungry scrap of a cat wedged behind one of the wardrobes. He hadn't even left the house. My relief was unbounded and the mood lightened considerably for the rest of the evening as my parents were finally able to help me unpack. Thankfully, Charlie didn't seem any the worse for his adventure. Before long, this beautiful little three-quarter cat grew to be a formidable presence in the village and ruled the roost wherever he went.

Inevitably, come Sunday afternoon, my parents had to leave to wend their way back to Kent, navigating the big car park best known as the M25. So it was that I found myself all alone, apart from a slightly aloof, biscuit-coloured, former stray who thought life was just a big ball of wool to chase. Reality slowly dawned on me. Tomorrow was the first day of my fledgling career and I really would be on my own.

* * *

Monday morning finally came after a long and sleepless night and I got ready for work with a sense of utterly debilitating fear. It suddenly seemed to me that every fact I had ever learnt at university had somehow, in the few weeks between qualifying and landing in Exmoor, vanished without a trace from my brain. All I could think about was a vet called Paul, with whom I used to see practice in the holidays, who had told me about the five stages of knowledge. Ironically, I couldn't remember the details of that either but I did remember the gist and that the first stage is that new graduates know so little that they don't even know they don't know anything. On that dank and grey Monday morning I had no illusions on this score and wanted to run for the hills, screaming, and find somewhere to hide. From nine o'clock that morning people were going to bring their animals to me and expect me to know what was wrong with them. I wasn't the student standing in the corner anymore. The buck stopped with me and I was, for want of a better expression, bricking it!

From the day of my job interview I recalled that the surgery was what could be described as quaint, or even ramshackle, but it had a kind of antiquated charm. Where most modern surgeries are made of miles of gleaming chrome, most of the fixtures and fittings here were wooden. The building was small with a tiny consulting room, a small operating theatre upstairs and what can only be described as a cupboard for taking X-rays in. This was one of many surgeries doing mainly large-animal work, and which therefore had no need for large or flashy premises or acres of sophisticated equipment, because so much farm work is done out of the boot of your car. Upstairs there were a couple of gas heaters as the only source of warmth and, most intriguingly, shelf upon shelf of various sizes of brown glass bottles with big stoppers in them. Having come from a state-of-the-art university, I felt like I'd gone back in time by about a century. It turned out the bottles contained an assortment of weird and wonderful lotions and potions, home-made remedies which had been made and passed down through generations. For all I knew, some of them still had the original potions in them. Discovering that one of them had ether in it didn't make me any less nervous, considering that the senior partner, Mr Elliot, used to chain-smoke while wandering among the cramped and highly explosive collection.

Mr Elliot had terrified me from the moment I arrived for my interview. I had always been a bit timid in certain circumstances but in hindsight I wish I had then been more who I am today because I think I would have found him a different being altogether. He's one of the most memorable people I've ever met and he also had one of the most incredible memories I've ever encountered. I've since realised after years in the job myself that, if you repeat the same things every day, as vets do, you eventually get ingrained knowledge that is difficult to shed. At the time, however, I was simply in awe of the breadth of information he held in his brain.

Every single vet I've known or worked with over the years has been referred to by their first name, except Mr Elliot. The first time a farmer said that 'Don' had been out the week before me I had no idea who he was talking about. It took a few moments of gormless staring while the cogs clattered round in my head to realise, not only that my boss had a first name and that it was Don, but that some people were actually allowed to call him that.

Mr Elliot was a small, wiry man with the complexion of someone who's had nicotine loitering round their skin for decades. He often scowled but equally often let out bellowing laughter at one of his own jokes. There seemed to be nothing in between these two moods. He would look like thunder if anyone dared to ring up for a visit. When Bretia or Mary, the two wonderful ladies who covered every job from nurse to cleaner to receptionist, leaned away from the phone to tell him who wanted to speak to him, he would exhale a string of expletives at the top of his voice about whoever was on the other end of the phone and there was no doubt that the poor farmer could hear every word of it. The mouthpiece would be hastily covered just a few seconds too late and after a great deal of huffing and puffing he'd snatch the phone and have a totally normal conversation, fixing the problem there and then with advice, or genially agreeing to be there at his own convenience, before hanging up and continuing the huffing and swearing. Without a shadow of a doubt, Mr Elliot swore more than any other person I've ever known. I was in no doubt that working alongside this enigma of a man would be what my mum would call 'character building'!


Excerpted from Tales from the Tail End by Emma Milne. Copyright © 2012 Emma Milne. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Having been featured on BBC's Vets in Practice for seven years I've had the opportunity to get involved in lots of things that an everyday vet might miss out on. As well as getting involved with lots of brilliant animal charities I've also ended up writing for quite a few magazines over the years and have done quite a bit of welfare campaigning. Being on the panel for Question Time's fox hunting special was probably one of my scariest but most memorable moments!

I wrote my first book over a few years in between work and it was published in 2007. With The Truth about Cats and Dogs I really wanted to make people aware of the sorry state of the health of our pedigree dogs and cats. We should be striving to make sure our wonderful animal companions are as healthy as they can be way before we worry about how they look.

My second book, Tales from the Tail End, was brilliant fun to write and is very different. After years of serious welfare issues it was a lovely bit of light relief to write a book based on the funny and bizarre things that have happened to me over my time as a vet. Having grown up totally in love with the stories of James Herriot is was great to set out my own mishaps and experiences for all to see. Being a female vet brings its own unique 'issues' in some cases and having had the added oddity of being a semi-celebrity for some of the time the stories do vary greatly!

For the moment I'm not practising at the surgery because I spend my days (in between trying to continue my welfare work) looking after my two lovely daughters who, of course, are creating their own stories and chapters in my life.



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Tales from the Tail End: Adventures of a Vet in Practice 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you like animals you;ll like this book