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Dangerous work not enough to slow down Prince George-based farm vet

Jody Green is Prince George's answer to Dr. Oakley, the Yukon vet of TV series fame, and her devotion to farm animal health is keeping the local food industry thriving

Jody Green has been practicing medicine for 16 years on sick and injured patients and some of them have left an indelible impression on her.

One patient kicked her hard enough to break her leg, another smashed her foot and yet another unruly subject made a wild head swing that pushed a metal gate into Green’s face hard enough to break a few of her teeth. She also had her nose broken and was forced to have an operation to have her worn-out back fused.

For Green, that just comes with the territory as a mixed-animal veterinarian and co-owner of Green Mobile Veterinary Services. Working in the Prince George region with cows, horses, pigs, sheep and goats, as well as the odd cat or dog, her job is stressful, physically-demanding and sometimes dangerous. Despite being tied to her practice virtually any time of the day or night on most days of the year, working outdoors in all weather conditions, it is a dream occupation for Green.

“I wouldn’t be practicing veterinary medicine anymore if I got a dollar for every time I’ve been kicked, I’d be a millionaire already,” said Green. “I do have a size advantage for sure. I’m five-foot-11 and I’m strong. It is extremely physically-demanding and even with the best preparation and facilities, injuries happen. You’re one injury away from not being a large-animal veterinarian, but you could also be one injury away from being dead. It’s part of the reality of the situation and unfortunately there’s been colleagues seriously injured on account of the animals they work on and there’s been deaths. But you can’t live with that fear.”

Her years as a throwing specialist on the University of Manitoba varsity track and field team just before she went on to fours years of study at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon helped develop the strength she needs to handle large animals.

For Green, job satisfaction comes in various forms. It might be seeing an animal respond quickly to an injection of antibiotics or a surgical procedure that saves a life and the joy that brings to a rancher whose livelihood depends on that animal thriving.

“It is a calling for me, and there’s nothing better than having a producer tell you, ‘That calf that had the broken leg, it healed up great and I sold it this fall and got the same price as everybody else,’” said Green. “As a large animal veterinarian you have a meaningful interaction with the producer, his wife and their kids and grandkids who take over the farm, and also all the people who get to eat the product that we were involved in producing."

Green never did want to focus exclusively on helping just cats and dogs stay healthy. Her farming background taught her the importance of humans dedicated to sustaining food-producing industries, which are under increasing pressure to survive the rising costs of day-to-day operations. For her as a veterinarian, it’s a labour of love.

“We eat the cows that are my patients and it doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate that animal or have love for that animal,” she said. “You just have to look in a producer’s eyes and you can tell how much they respect their animals and they would do anything for them. Just because they’re going to eventually be slaughtered and become food doesn’t mean they love their animals less than they love their dog. They treat them well.”

During her career, Green has witnessed some miraculous recoveries, like the cow whose calf was born inside-out with its intestines on the outside of its body. The calf, of course, did not survive. Green performed a C-section and the cow laid down in the mud four times on her exposed abdomen before Green could clean and disinfect her.

“As I was stitching her up I said to the owner, ‘there’s no way this cow is going to live, she’s just contaminated her abdomen too much,” said Green. “But I saw (the rancher) about 12 months later and he said to me, ‘You know that cow you told me was going to die, she’s alive and she just calved last week.’ Sometimes we get lucky. Cows are amazing creatures, things that would kill a horse in a heartbeat, a cow will survive and go on to have a calf next year - they’re just so much hardier than a horse in every respect, not just giving birth.”

Green had one unforgettable call three winters ago when she had to assist in a difficult birth and her role as the facilitator produced conjoined twin calves. Joined at the sternum, only one of the twins survived the birth but it had to euthanized. That one-in-100,000 experience is among several brow-raising incidents Green has encountered on the job she had previously only read about.

Two other veterinary clinics in Prince George provide medical care for horses but Green and her associate, Dr. Hannah Vesper, are the only practice in the city that treats all farm animals. Most large animal practices in Canada are based in rural areas, which creates challenges attracting professional veterinary staff. For the first four years of practice Green worked on call 50 per cent of the time and that on-call work jumped to 24/7 for the next 11 years, until Vesper arrived a year ago to provide some relief. Green struggles to get a good night’s sleep when she is on call but knows it comes with the territory. She admits there’s been a generational change and younger vets are less likely to put their personal lives on the back burner constantly to answer patient calls outside of normal working hours.

“Twenty-five years ago, most people who were in the veterinary profession, it was a calling for them and they eat, slept and  breathed veterinary medicine, and I’m not saying that was the best thing but that’s how it was,” said Green. “Unfortunately there’s been a bit of shift to veterinary medicine becoming more of a job than a life calling. But I think the vast majority of people that end up doing large-animal medicine still believe that it’s a calling and they truly believe after-hours call is part of the job. You just have to live with it and try not to miss too many family events.”

Less than 30 per cent of Green’s graduating class in Saskatoon went into mixed-animal practice and the average longevity of vets working with large animals is five years. She would like to see more seats at veterinary colleges reserved from students from rural areas or small towns who are more likely to set up practices in rural areas once they gain their medical credentials. B.C. has committed to two years of doubling to 40 the number of subsidized students entering the vet college in Saskatoon, but it’s not nearly enough to fill the need. Most WCVM students come from urban areas and they have no interest in a rural practice. She suggests a more regional approach to designating seats in the college would result n more graduates willing to set up practices in the north and rural B.C.

“We’ve been confronted with a lot of angry people in frustration over the veterinary shortage and I think people think sometimes we’re just sitting in the office waiting for them to phone,” she said. “But the reality is we’re the ones working 24/7 and people don’t see the hours when you’re up at three o’clock in the morning doing a C-section. Then you come in the clinic at 8 in the morning to start your day of appointments and you’re dealing with the calamities and urgent cases that pop up in the day.”

To encourage more veterinary students to settle in smaller communities, Green said part of their required training should be to participate in an internship that involves regular case exposure in rural practices. During her four years in Saskatoon, Green saw just one cow C-section and she was among four students that day vying for that hands-on experience. That perpetuates unfamiliarity with rural practice and as a consequence very few students pursue careers in large-animal medicine.

“Right now, a student who is looking at the job postings can probably look at a list of 50 different jobs, so why are they going to pick Prince George or Vanderhoof, when they can pick Langley or Calgary or  Red Deer,” said Green. “But if they’ve come out... (to) Prince George or Vanderhoof and they’ve spent the time and have seen what the community has to offer, they’re more apt to consider a job posting here.”

The scarcity of veterinarians became even more of a problem for livestock producers in 2018 when a change in federal drug regulations made it illegal for over-the-counter sales of antibiotics used to treat animal infections. A prescription is needed now to get those drugs and if clients do not already have a working relationship with a vet clinic they can’t establish one because most clinics, including Green’s, are not taking on new patients. Since the new law came into effect her office has had to deal with dozens of producers upset that they can no longer obtain those antibiotics on their own.

Green stands behind the reasoning behind the changes, which are designed to protect against antibiotic overuse and the development of resistant bacteria strains which dimmish the effects of drugs and can be spread to humans through food.  

“Where we have areas of the country which don’t have large-animal veterinarians… it is going to lead producers to seek care that maybe is substandard and it runs the risk where it’s going to be detrimental to our reputation in producing some of the highest-quality food with some of the highest safety standards in the world,” said Green. “I would venture to say that this is worldwide issue, not just a Prince George problem.”