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3rd Article





 Maria Dickin was the wife of a wealthy accountant and she did voluntary social work in the eastern districts of London in the early years of the twentieth century.  In those days, few people had motor vehicles and most small tradesmen were reliant upon draught horses

 During her visits, Mrs Dickin was concerned to find that pet animals and draught horses were suffering because their owners could not afford to pay for a Vet to treat them, so Mrs Dickin rallied support including the help of a local vet and a pioneer clinic was opened in Whitechapel Road, London during the First world war.  This clinic was soon well patronised and Mrs Dickin wanted to expand this free veterinary service, so she organised a horse-drawn mobile clinic which toured the country.  Demand was so great that more clinics were established througout the country leading to the formation of the People’s Dispensary for Sick animals, which became a formally registered charity during the 1940’s.

In its early years the PDSA did not attract fully qualified veterinary surgeons, so it had to recruit and train its own staff in the rudiments of veterinary care and once qualified they were on the supplementary register of the Royal college of Veterinary Surgeons.  The charity was and still is entirely dependant upon voluntary support financially, so life could be hard in its early years. For example, it was not possible to buy all the drugs and equipment needed to comprehensively equip all of its clinics.

My personal experiences of the charity will, I hope, make an interesting story because it is the Cinderella of the Veterinary world rising from the lower divisions to achieve Premiere league status all within my own professional lifetime.

My first contact with the PDSA was in the late 1960’s when I was coming towards the end of my undergraduate training.  I visited the PDSA clinic in Sheffield, my home town.  It was housed in a small terraced house where clients waited in the front room and animals were treated in turn in the rear room.  Jack was an ex-marine commando who, like many other former soldiers, had been recruited by the PDSA and trained to Supplementary register standard. The drugs Jack had available were mostly homeopathic medicines, but like most SVR’s he had a very pleasant manner and the clients told me that despite two qualified veterinary surgeons in practice nearby, they preferred to come to Jack who was certainly very adroit in both his clinical skills and management of the limited medicines available.  He even stitched up a wound under local anaesthetic while I was there.

Jack’s enthusiasm and energy were boundless, for when I joined the PDSA in Leeds about fifteen years later, he was in his retirement yet he would drive all the way up from Sheffield to help out whenever we were short staffed.  Not only that, but he would arrive before anyone else and took some persuading to leave for home before darkness fell.  He would also entertain us with anecdotes from his army days and had a well-developed sense of humour.  I was once an easy victim of a well thought out practical joke of his.

 My next encounter with the PDSA was in the early 1970’s when I was employed at a well-equipped veterinary hospital in Bradford. The local private practices used to provide help during PDSA staff holidays at the Bradford clinic, which was similar to the one in Sheffield.  Although drugs such as antibiotics had been introduced, facilities were still very basic.  For example, chloroform, which is now obsolescent, was used to anaesthetise male cats for castration, however a limited number of PDSA units were equipped to a higher standard, providing hospitalisation and basic surgical facilities. Animals from Bradford were sent to nearby Batley if more complex surgery was required.  The PDSA did produce some naturally skilled surgeons who were based at the hospital units, and I am able to bear witness to the high quality of their handiwork.

Later on in the 1970’s the PDSA undertook an extensive modernisation programme, which involved developing all its clinics to full clinical, diagnostic and surgical standards.  To oversee these changes, it appointed an outsider as its Principle Veterinary officer.  This Veterinary Surgeon had already achieved prominence within the profession, first forming a successful private practice and then serving as President of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association for a year.  The dawn of a new era in the history of the PDSA had arrived, and I would soon be joining the Organisation as an employee.  My period of employment within the PDSA will be discussed in my next article, for throughout that time the organisation was undergoing constant improvements and changes.

 A.R. Payne, BVHS, HRCVS

  August 2005


Third Article

As started in my last article, I am highlighting several of the more positive features to emerge from the early years of my career.

 Diagnostic aids were not so advanced and veterinary surgeons lacked the scientific training of today. This often meant that both their clinical skills and their common sense were more highly developed, and I was privileged to learn from them, with beneficial results.  For example I was able to palpate an impaction the size of a hazelnut in the intestine of a vomiting dog. Subsequent surgery enabled the removal of a clump of sweetcorn husks that an X-ray wouldn’t have detected. Delays before treatment and expense to the owner were both minimised.

 The practice where I had my first assistantship had a golden rule of each client seeing their vet of choice, despite there being six vets.  At first I had to wait for a newly registered client who would be allocated to myself.  This was an excellent idea because clients saw the vet of their own choice, continuity was ensured and problems arising through miscommunication were minimised. Indeed I find that the most frequent reason clients transfer from other practices is “we saw a different vet each time”.

When I joined my third practice, I found the owner to be very progressive.  The practice was equipped to the highest standards of the time and the owner introduced two ideas, which did not acheive universal acceptance within the veterinary profession until relatively recent times.

The first idea was to encourage each vet to develop a particular skill or interest.  This in house expertise on feline medicine, orthopaedics, ophthalmology and heart-lung disease soon evolved.  The practice encouraged attendance of courses. Another fifteen years were to pass before the Royal College introduced Certificate Education at practice level. Prior to this, vets tended to “try their hand at everything and all species” with mixed results!

 The second idea should have achieved universal acceptance much earlier than it did.  The veterinary profession has traditionally worked a very long day, accommodating clients in evening surgeries so that they could attend after work, so a typical working day in vet’s life would often not finish until after 7.00pm, then if a vet was on duty he or she would have to be available for emergencies until the following morning.  Such vets would naturally want to relax; therefore out-of-hours callers were often sidestepped if the problem did not appear to be urgent.  If an emergency requiring prompt surgery arose, then additional risks would occur if the tired vet were unable to concentrate fully. Sometimes, vets on duty would operate without adequate support staff.  All this would arise after a prolonged, stressful, “normal” working day, during which vets had to see their clients at excessively frequent intervals giving themselves inadequate time to work properly. Does your vet give you as much time as your solicitor or accountant?  It is no wonder that the profession had one of the highest rates of alcoholism, suicide and divorce.

 My progressive employer simply divided the working day into two parts.  The day staff worked from 9am to 5pm while a completely fresh vet, nurse and receptionist worked from 5pm until midnight.  The advantages of this “shift” system were: -

   Firstly. Staff were on the spot and fresh for duty instead of having to be called out from their homes. Emergencies after midnight were very rare, when the vet was at home.

  Secondly. An increased workload could be accommodated without the need to extend or alter the premises.

 Thirdly. Clients were able to make routine appointments at any time of the day up to 9.30 pm.

 Fourthly.  The practice benefited from both an improved reputation and increased profits.

Finally. There were no problems recruiting new staff.

My employer offered this facility to the neighbouring practices but no interest was shown. Since then, attitudes have gradually changed because an increasing number of vets are unwilling to be on call after a full days work.  The recently introduced European Working Time Directive has finally laid such working conditions to rest.  Hence in Derby for instance, there are now two Emergency Clinics providing an out-of-hours emergency service for clients of all the local veterinary practices. These clinics came into existence thirty years after my far-sighted employer introduced his own out-of-hours emergency shift system.

 A.R. Payne

8th March 2005.

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