After ten years in general small animal practice I could begin to see the rough outlines of burnout approaching on the distant horizon, like a cloud of dust way down a gravel road. I didn't know whether that cloud of dust signified a puttering tractor or a careening semi-trailer truck, but I didn't want to wait to find out. It wasn't anything I could put my finger on, just a growing sense that I needed a different challenge. Don't get me wrong, general practice is extremely challenging, but it is made up of thousands of individual challenges, case by case, that keep you running like a proverbial hamster on a treadmill, but for me there was increasingly no sense of progress on something "bigger".
At around that time we were starting to find more and more uses for ultrasound, but no small animal veterinarians in Manitoba were doing it routinely, so we had to get a human ultrasonographer in who moonlighted going from vet clinic to vet clinic with her portable machine. She was great, but the limitations of that set-up were obvious. Moreover, I found the technology fascinating, so whenever I had time I would peer over her shoulder and annoy her by saying, "That's liver, right?" and "What's that grey bit there? Beside the other grey bit?"
I was not a partner yet, so I approached my boss at the time with a proposal to buy an ultrasound machine for the clinic. It was a very big ticket item and even with creative math I could not make a solid financial case for it, but Bob was a remarkably wise man and could both sense the implications to the practice of my restlessness and see beyond what the immediate numbers showed.
So in 2001 we bought an ultrasound machine and I went to Calgary for a course. It was a revelation. Here was a world I could deep dive into that combined a fun technological toy with live anatomy, physiology and pathology, the subjects I loved in school. Blood tests and urine tests and xrays are cool in their own way, but they are static and removed and abstracted from the animal. Ultrasound was more like an extension of the physical exam. It was a live real-time exploration of the interior of my patients. Another exciting thing about ultrasound for me was how it was turning one of our weaker senses as a species, sound, into one of our stronger senses, vision. With ultrasound I was becoming like a dolphin or a bat and was seeing with sound. The hand-eye-brain coordination was going to take time to get consistently right, but the first few times that that grey mess on the screen automatically crystallized into a 3D organ in my mind were exhilarating. Furthermore, because it is done in a dark room, and because I drone on in a monotone, the animals were usually calm and the whole experience felt soothing and peaceful to me. I was hooked.
Over time I took more courses, in California and New York, but it became clear early on that the key to becoming proficient was case load. You just had to practice a lot. It was more like learning to play a musical instrument or a new sport than anything else I had encountered in practice. So I began to set aside time to scan healthy patients who were in for spays and neuters. This also helped me build up a strong sense as to what normal looks like, as well as how much variation there is in normal.
And then the first referral came in. Another practice across town had heard I was doing this and wanted to send a patient over. I was terrified. I agreed on the condition that the pet owner understood that I was still learning. But it went well and I failed to humiliate myself as expected. And then there were a few more referrals from that practice and then some from a second practice and then from a third and....
In the last fifteen years I have done over 12,000 ultrasound studies for close to 40 clinics from southern Saskatchewan through to Northwest Ontario. Now there are many veterinarians as well as an excellent human ultrasonographer doing it, but I am still busy enough with ultrasound that it takes up about half my time. And I still love it and it is still helping keep the burnout at bay.