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‘We Get That Crazy Cow Call a Lot’

Texas’ rural veterinarians pleading for help in the trenches

After a 12-hour day in his Lockhart clinic, Dr. Steven Golla was finally home, eating supper with his family. Then, at about 8:30 p.m., the phone rang: It was an emergency. A rancher’s heifer was in labor, and she was in trouble.

Golla shoved his plate aside and jumped in the pickup for a 30-mile drive. Upon arrival, he found the heifer in a chute made of two-by-fours and baling wire. Golla started pulling the calf out with great difficulty, but the heifer was struggling and went down. He and the rancher dragged her out of the chute with a rope and delivered the calf with the mother lying on the ground.

Around midnight, an exhausted Golla was headed home when his cell phone rang. A horse riding in a trailer had been badly cut in a vehicle accident. Could Golla come right away? You bet. After treating the horse, the veterinarian crawled into bed at 3 a.m. A little shut-eye, and he was back in the clinic for a 7:30 a.m. appointment.

It’s all in a day’s—and night’s—work for a mixed-practice rural veterinarian who cares for large and small animals. And the work, it seems, is more taxing all the time. Yes, says Golla, a father of four children, including an 11-month-old, he’s tired. He’s fighting the fight. “We get that crazy cow call a lot,” he says.

So why, comes the logical question, would anyone want to practice rural veterinary medicine? For someone like the 37-year-old Golla, chairman of a Texas Veterinary Medical Association task force that’s examining ways to resolve Texas’ shortage of country veterinarians, that’s easy to answer: He grew up on a farm near Schertz, northeast of San Antonio, where his family raised milo, corn, wheat and cattle. He loves laid-back country living, working with livestock and being around rural people who, he says, are respectful and appreciative of the old-fashioned veterinary care their animals receive.

Golla, who owns two veterinary clinics, in Lockhart and Luling, is a throwback to the rural Texas veterinarian of yesteryear. Such men—and veterinarians a few decades ago predominately were male—wore their rural hats with pride.

Evolving Cultural Landscape

Texas’ evolving cultural landscape was one of several veterinarian work-force issues that the Texas Veterinary Medical Association’s inaugural task force addressed in 2006. In an article he wrote for the association’s magazine, task force chairman Dr. Roland Lenarduzzi explained that many prospective veterinarians came from rural backgrounds and considered veterinary medicine a step up from farming and ranching.

A veterinary medicine degree, Lenarduzzi wrote, “afforded one the recognition as a professional and the prestige of being a doctor.”

It’s still a big deal to graduate from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences in College Station. According to school officials, its graduates represent almost 10 percent of the licensed veterinarians practicing in the U.S.

But the model has changed: Today’s Texas veterinarian, regardless of type of practice, typically grew up in an urban setting. Rural life is a foreign concept.

An American Veterinary Medical Association map that shows Texas’ concentration of food-animal veterinarians appears to support that statement: According to the map, the state’s most remote areas, in the Panhandle, South Texas and West Texas, are suffering the most severe shortages of veterinarians. Almost one-quarter of the state’s counties, 62, have no food-animal veterinarians. And 63 Texas counties have just one veterinarian available to treat farm and ranch animals.

Some veterinarians question the preciseness of the map. They note that in the regions showing the most pronounced shortages, one veterinarian might actually be covering three to four counties. And one overworked veterinarian, they say, is better than none.

But no one’s disputing the overall picture: Texas has too few rural veterinarians caring for livestock and large animals. In a 2009 report to the state Legislature, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board stated that Texas leads the nation in the number of cattle and has three times as many horses than any of the other nine most populous states. Yet Texas ranks 45th among all 50 states in the number of actively practicing veterinarians per 100,000 people.

In its report, the board said no new veterinary school in Texas was recommended at the time. But enrollment at Texas A&M, which has almost three times as many applicants as available seats, could be increased, the board said, potentially sending “badly needed” veterinarians to rural areas.

To that end, Texas A&M, the state’s only veterinary college and one of 28 in the U.S., has submitted a $115 million request to the Texas Legislature for a new teaching facility that would increase each of its four class sizes by more than 13 percent, from 132 to 150 students. The hope, school officials say, is that a larger, more diverse pool of college applicants would produce more rural veterinarians.

With the recently convened state Legislature facing an estimated $18 billion budget deficit, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo says it will be difficult to fulfill Texas A&M’s request, which includes money for a small-animal teaching hospital expansion. But he says he “absolutely” supports the proposal, which represents a movement statewide to increase educational opportunities for veterinary students.

In 2009, Seliger supported building a new veterinary college to take pressure off Texas A&M, which has operated the state’s only such school since 1916.

Now, because of budget constraints, he’s instead pushing for large-animal veterinarian programs instead of construction of what would be the state’s second veterinary college. In particular, he wants to see the installation of a large-animal program at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, one of 11 schools in the Texas A&M system.

West Texas A&M, in the heart of the Panhandle, could help supply veterinarians for one of the nation’s largest populations of cattle and working ranch horses, Seliger said.

Eleanor Green, dean of Texas A&M’s veterinary college, says the Aggies, meanwhile, will continue leading the way in producing veterinarians for every region. “We take seriously our responsibility to fill societal needs and those of Texas,” she says. “It’s an investment in this state.”

Veterinarians, Green says, are sentinels on the front line of defense against zoonotic diseases transmitted between animals and humans. After all, she notes, it was a Bronx Zoo veterinarian in 1999 who discovered the emergence of West Nile virus in the Western Hemisphere after dissecting crows that died of the illness.

Without an adequate distribution of veterinarians statewide, Green says, especially in remote areas where livestock populations can go unmonitored, Texas cannot effectively practice something called one-health medicine: a merging of animal, human and environmental health concerns.

Veterinary Medicine Does an About-face

A closer examination of veterinarian allocation reveals another component of this complex issue: gender. Once defined by men, veterinary medicine is rapidly becoming a female-dominated profession. In spring 2010, reflecting a national trend, three-quarters of the veterinary students in Texas A&M’s 125-member graduating class were women.

The conventional thinking from some male veterinarians is that women, in general, are less inclined to enter careers in large-animal, mixed-animal (large and small) and rural practice. Some female veterinarians, the argument goes, aren’t strong enough to handle large animals such as cattle and horses.

But the women veterinarians who do choose rural practice say they can handle the physical rigors of the job. Consider the responsibilities of Dr. Lisa Willis, who practices in and around the tiny town of Gustine, between Abilene and Killeen. She routinely subdues sullen rodeo bulls who’d rather kick her than receive medical treatment.

Four veterinarians—two men (including Golla) and two women—share duties in Golla’s two-clinic practice. They take the same number of calls, and, generally speaking, perform the same procedures, such as pulling newborn calves and treating horses. Golla muses about the changing physiques of veterinarians.

“Most of the older veterinarians I know, they’re mountains of men,” notes the 5-foot-9-inch-tall, 160-pound Golla, who says he’s plenty strong but isn’t going to wrestle a 1,000-pound horse. “They’re the John Wayne types, and we’re replacing them with folks that aren’t.”

Yet the gender debate is too complex to simply become a discussion about muscle, says Chris Copeland, executive director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association (TVMA). For example, he says, some male veterinarians who graduate with high debt automatically head for the city, where they probably can make more money and better support their families. And female veterinarians’ husbands, even if they don’t mind living in a rural environment, might not be able to find jobs in their career fields there.

Hillary Olin Smith, a 2009 Texas A&M veterinary graduate, had hoped to focus on the treatment of large animals, but she landed instead in a Hempstead clinic, northwest of Houston, near her husband’s work. Smith occasionally treats cattle but mostly sees dogs and cats.

Gender was one of several issues discussed in June when a newly formed task force that included veterinarians, agricultural producers and Texas A&M professors met in Copeland’s office. Golla, who also served on the association’s first task force, is determined to remedy what he calls a shortage of veterinarians willing to do certain types of work under certain types of conditions.

“We had a lot of things on that list, and here it is four years later, and we’re still not there,” he says of the original task force report.

Many of the issues remain the same: The enormous debt carried by veterinary college graduates; the high cost of veterinary care in juxtaposition with farmers and ranchers struggling to make a profit; and the quest to make rural veterinary practice, and rural life, attractive.

It’s a matter of veterinarians taking off their cowboy hats and putting on their salesperson hats—which, some say, is easier said than done. As Copeland notes, some veteran rural veterinarians are perplexed when recent graduates open job interviews by asking about their hours and whether they’ll have to take emergency calls.

Older veterinarians, he says, never questioned 80-hour workweeks. They felt ultimately responsible for the animals in their coverage area. For some of today’s college graduates, Copeland says, being a veterinarian is second. Quality of life is first.

But Copeland notes that some older veterinarians actually applaud that stance. They say they would have enjoyed more balance at home, especially during their child-rearing years.

So as the older generation weighs work-ethic pride against the need to find younger veterinarians willing to someday operate their rural clinics, compromises must be found: College graduates, veterinary experts say, need to hear about the benefits of rural life, such as fresh air and wide-open spaces, friendly neighbors and the opportunity to go to work on day one.

There’s plenty of work to go around, Golla says. With further education, and possibly a certain level of licensing, he envisions clinic technicians handling some of the daily duties that cost veterinarians time and energy.

When the task force met in June, at the TVMA headquarters, Golla scribbled a central thought on his synopsis: “Education is the way out of this.” That means, he says, educating, attracting and retaining young veterinarians and teaching the public about the problems facing rural veterinary medicine.

As the TVMA board of directors reviews the task force’s recommendations, the association’s executive director says it remains clear that there are no easy answers. “That’s why we’ve got 13 items on this list of possible solutions,” Copeland says. “Not one of them’s going to be the magic bullet.”

Camille Wheeler is associate editor for Texas Co-op Power magazine. Wes Ferguson is a freelance writer based in Northeast Texas.