This is the fourth episode in the series supporting WHY I – Julie South – am launching a parliamentary petition requesting the government to designate veterinarians as critical workers to let more into NZ to help the dire shortage we have right now.
You can sign the petition online at getvets.nz. All signatures ate 100% confidential.
Dr Rose Unsworth’s letter
Late last year I received a letter from a very globally experienced companion animal veterinarian.
Dr Unsworth wrote:
For what it is worth I thought that I would provide some information on the current state of veterinary practice in New Zealand as I see it, with a global perspective thrown in.
My spouse and I (both veterinary surgeons) came out to New Zealand in 1982 in response to a
veterinary employment situation whereby veterinarians were on the skill shortage list.
What was intended as a short-term working holiday, turned into a love affair with New Zealand, the country, it’s people and its animals.
We were fortunate to be granted permanent residency (partly facilitated by Marilyn Waring who took a personal interest in us as being the sort of people needed in New Zealand).
Approximately ten years ago we started locuming overseas and have worked in the UK, Bermuda, India, Australia (civilised in Melbourne) and remote parts that nobody usually goes to. Along with NZ of course.
At all points in time the demand for our services has been overwhelming. Irrespective of where we were there has been more demand for our services than we could meet.
Practices that could not attract a permanent vet, parental leave obligations, simple sick leave. All critical gaps. You can’t say no because you have been there, tried working ludicrous hours and sacrificed so much of your own lives that you have to fill those gaps.
Nothing can be more poignant than a veterinary couple simply saying thank you because you turned up and they can actually have a family holiday. Is two weeks too much to ask once every five years? Giving someone the ability to actually take sick leave?
Forty years on we still have a crisis on our hands. No individual should have a personal connection to five colleagues who have committed suicide (those are the ones I can name personally, I know of many more).
Over the past two years I have worked in clinics that are having to refuse to see clients because they simply don’t have the staff to provide the service. An unprecedented situation and one that goes against every fibre of your being.
Choosing to relocate to New Zealand is not a decision that anyone takes lightly. You cut yourself off from friends and family.
You often take a significant salary cut.
You limit your professional opportunities for growth and career development. If you have a partner you restrict your abilities to both gain meaningful employment. Anyone who chooses to make that commitment to veterinary medicine and our country should be welcomed with open arms.
I could write screeds more but felt that this little contribution might be of some assistance.
Thank you for the work that you do.”
Rose Unsworth, BVMS
In response to that letter, I invited Dr Unsworth to be a guest on Paws Claws & Wet Noses.
Introducing Dr Unsworth…
Dr Rose Unsworth is the mother of twin daughters, four mini schnauzers, a pit bull a blue tongued lizard called Tequila, chinchilla breeding and two cats.
She’s a veterinarian with over 40 years companion animal experience and over 25 years of passionate and dedicated involvement with the Complementary Veterinary Medicine Branch of the New Zealand Veterinary Association.
Some of Dr Rose’s life-changing experiences include volunteering at the Asha Foundation in Ahmedabad, India – which she describes as hell on steroids, working at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and the Dog Care clinic in Sri Lanka plus the Kimberley Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation centre in Australia as well as neutering cats in Bermuda for a charity.
In Bermuda, she had the best view anyone could ever have from an operating table: pink sand, turquoise seas and palm trees.
Dr Unsworth believes that if you have a vet degree and a willing partner with the right attitude who shares your values and has a strong desire to give back, then the world is your oyster.
This is the first podcast with Dr Rose. As happens when people chat, one thread topic leads to other topics.
Listen out for the second podcast because we talked about how different working in New Zealand is to working in other parts of the world.
But in today’s podcast we focus specifically on what it’s like working in-clinic while New Zealand’s borders are closed to internationally-qualified veterinarians … listen out for when Dr Rose’s husband, Paul found out about one of her “secrets” – it happened when they were moving into their new house but she couldn’t turn down an SOS to locum in a clinic that needed her because they were so short staffed.
Questions I asked Dr Rose:
What was it like returning [as a locum] to clinics immediately after lockdown?
She explains how hard it was having to say ‘no’ to clients.
These were conditions were brought about because only emergency treatments were allowed during Alert Levels 4 and 3.
Once NZ returned to AL1 then they were in catchup mode.
Were clients understanding?
I remember speaking with different vets at the time who were struggling with carpark consults, video consults and not being able to be in the consulting room with their fur babies.
What was it like running on minimum staff?
People handle stress differently because I heard differing stories.
Some clinics drew together stronger than ever while others came close to implosion.
When you’re running on minimum staff – because teams have been split into two or maybe more teams to protect everyone in the event of a Covid outbreak.
What does the New Normal look like in-clinic?
There was a short time where, I think, we all had visions of life returning to ‘normal’ but it soon became apparent that what we’re in now is normal. It’s just a completely different normal.
This normal has closed borders whereas in the old normal, vets were allowed into Godzone simply because they were able to get their APC and register with VCNZ. But that’s not the case any more. How is that showing up in-clinic?
Some emergency hospitals are becoming overloaded because clinics can’t handle any more cases so they’re referring them to the after hours and emergency hospitals.
Dr Rose talks about how clinics are rationing resources because they have no choice.
What incidents of stress has she witnessed recently?
Stress, like fatigue, is cumulative and people respond in different ways.
What’s a trigger for someone may not have any response with another.
She talked about the financial stress that clients are under and the resultant stress that flows onto veterinarians because clients can’t afford treatment.
She said that euthanising coping mechanisms are stretched more than before.
What does “stretched to capacity” mean?
Dr Rose said that overseas locums who’re usually available to step in and provide respite to overloaded veterinarians are critical. But of course, we don’t have enough of them right now.
What other “layers” of stress is she seeing in-clinic?
New Zealand’s population is increasing – as our PM kept reminding us – we’re a team of Five Million.
As well as this, our companion animal population is increasing and, like humans, our pets are living longer.
This adds a whole new level of complexity and stress.
Did she notice any unusual behaviours in colleagues which she attributed to stress?
Some people turn to alcohol, some smoke more, some eat more, some just want to hide under a blanket and never come out until the sun is shining again.
But it’s not all about responding to situations in an unhealthy way.
It’s also when a receptionist has to ask vets whether they can handle just one more case – someone has just walked through the door without an appointment. That’s another layer of stress.
Does she have any recommendations on how to cope with stress in relationships?
Having a spouse who’s a veterinarian implies that both parties understand the stresses of the job.
But what’s it like when only one half of the couple is exposed to these stresses?
Being in a relationship with someone who works with a roster that can change since it was published. Or has a last minute life or death emergency.
Stress needs to have an antedote otherwise it manifests in dangerous ways.
How often did Dr Rose and her husband plan to locum overseas (pre Covid)?
Before Covid was ever a word or on our radars as anything to worry about with closed borders and MIQ, how often did Dr Rose and her husband plan to spend locuming overseas each year?
Dreaded SOS-type calls – what did those look like for Dr Rose (and her husband)?
Receiving a “we’re desperate can you help us?” – those are the calls that Dr Rose dreads answering – because she knows that they truly are desperate and how do you say no to a plea like that?
This time last year I (Julie) would probably receive one SOS call a week. Now I’m receiving them almost daily.
It’s a horrible feeling!
The vets I have are either already out on assignment or they’re deliberately off grid and cannot be contacted.
One of the situations I find it very hard to handle is when I get a call from clinic owners asking for help because they’re about to go into hospital for cancer treatment and they need cover for their recovery … but I don’t have anyone. That is so hard!
How you can help
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of PCWN.
One way you can really help right now is to add your signature to the parliamentary petition at GETVETS.NZ to request NZs government to change the classification of veterinarians to CRITICAL WORKERS so Immigration NZ isn’t hamstrung by the very limiting criteria its having to operate under today.
Another way you can help is to leave a comment wherever you heard this podcast. Comments really do make such a huge difference to helping to spread the word online and enabling the algorithms to share this podcast into others feeds.
You can subscribe to Paws Claws and Wet Noses at iTunes, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Spotify and the other major podcast platforms.