Large animal vet talks about her experiences in her new book

By Page H. Gifford

Large animal or equine veterinary work is grueling, and it was unheard of at one point for women to engage in it or even become veterinarians in the male male-dominated workplace. Nowadays, women outnumber men in the field by 55 percent. Dr. Melinda McCall, who practices in Louisa, will talk about her experiences being a large animal vet in her new book Driving Home Naked, when she visits with Friends of the Library on Jan. 3, at 10 a.m.

McCall, who has been practicing for 20 years, was destined to become a large animal vet after growing up on a dairy farm.

“I loved helping my dad deliver baby calves, treat sick cows, and feed dogs and sheep.” Her experiences growing up on the farm and in her practice inspired her to write the book. “I love to tell stories about my veterinary adventures and a client of mine who is a retired newspaper editor encouraged me to write my stories down,” she said. “I resisted for a long time fearing that no one would be able to hear my voice on a page, but I finally caved and with the help of a writing coach I learned how to allow people to hear my voice through a piece of paper.”

The adventures of a country vet was made famous in the classic series by James Herriot in All Creatures Great and Small. He took care of all animals, including cats and dogs, during the ‘30s and ‘40s in Yorkshire, England. McCall specializes in beef and dairy cows, goats and sheep, llamas and alpacas, and pigs.

She said some of her most memorable stories usually involved hanging out of the tractor bucket with a blow dart or swimming across a pond to restrain a patient. The more heartwarming ones involve helping humans in need, whether through providing milk to the food bank for children in the summer or making sure her clients didn’t freeze in the winter.

“One story I will share is the story about when I had to drive home naked, hence the title of the book. I was out in a field in Greene County and I had to replace a cow’s uterus (womb) twice after it fell out a second time. I was blood-soaked and wet to my skin and I had run out of water in the truck,” she said. “I had no choice but to send the farmer away and strip off my clothes. So I drove 45 minutes home wearing only a pair of muck boots. The story took an interesting turn when I realized I was so thirsty I went  through a drive-thru, but I will let you read about that in the book. The point is, large animal veterinarians have a physically hard and dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”

She has persisted despite a fractured skull, back surgery, rare zoonotic diseases, and other extreme obstacles. With solid resolve and grit, she exceeded the expectations of opponents, including her father, to become the owner of a successful veterinary business.

Her book not only focuses on her stories of a country vet but contributes to the understanding of veterinary medicine in rural communities.

“I believe my book highlights some of the benefits and challenges of living and practicing veterinary medicine in a rural community. The benefits include hospitable people and a strong sense of community. The challenges are poor internet and cell phone connections and long distances between patients with rough terrain.”

She added that  “A few key lessons from her book is that veterinary medicine is a calling, which is when your gifts and talents meet the needs of the world. Especially in rural communities, veterinarians are respected members of the community and have the ability to help both animals and people.”

She said that she met Dr. Temple Grandin, who was the first person to endorse her book, and has developed a friendship. “Dr. Grandin has been instrumental in improving animal welfare and animal handling all over the world, so it’s very gratifying to be able to work with her to train and empower other women on how to farm.”

There is always career burnout for some but McCall says another lesson is that chasing a dream and staying with a career for a long period can have moments of adversity, but in the long run it’s very gratifying and rewarding to see your hard work pay off.

“Also, I hope people gain an inside candid glimpse into the scope of tasks a veterinarian has to do. I think sometimes veterinary medicine is portrayed as loving on puppies and kittens all day, and this is quite far from the truth.”

She hopes people realize how important agriculture is, especially in rural communities.

“The dwindling number of farmers and large animal veterinarians in these communities are going to make our food supply a challenge in the coming years. Only two percent of our nation supplies our food, one percent work in animal agriculture, and one percent work in crop production,” she said. “People need to realize how hard these farmers and veterinarians are working to keep our country’s food supply the cheapest and safest in the world.”

Anyone interested in veterinarian medicine, particularly women, nowadays, she says will continue to face challenges due to gender.

“To be happy living in the country, you’ll need to enjoy small towns, which can be great places to raise children. You will need to enjoy working with animals, as well as people, because in the country those connections with the community are very important,” she said. “I also feel it’s important not to be afraid to be an aspiring business owner, even if you don’t have a lot of business experience. Fortunately, there are lots of women veterinarians now who can serve as mentors for young women aspiring to be in the veterinary field.”

Balancing the demands of rural veterinary practice with other aspects of her life, and raising a daughter, she points out the rewards and the drawbacks to living a life as a rural veterinarian.

“I mostly just run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I try to prioritize whatever needs to be first each day; some days that’s my sweet daughter, some days it’s a crisis with the veterinary business, and some days there’s something major going on with the book,” she said. “The important part is that everyone knows if they are the priority at that moment, they get all of me. In the book, I talk a lot about multitasking, which is like juggling. The important message is to start with two balls, then add other balls in one at a time. I also have a wonderful staff and network of friends and neighbors who help me to get everything done well each day and I’m grateful for them.”

She adds to her many accomplishments in her writing journey and says she has met some interesting people.

“I am in a group of women authors from all over the world who have written so many different types of books. I enjoy learning about the writing process from them and sharing experiences.”

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