Veterinarian Dr John Dooley has been caring for animals big and small, and their owners, for 45 years. But now it is time for the NSW Mid North Coast much-loved and well respected vet to hang up his stethoscope and to call his time his own.
On Friday, June 26, staff at the Wingham and Valley Vets farewelled John with a luncheon party on what was his last day of his professional life, as he heads into retirement.
Just what he intends to do with his new free time, John does not yet know. He hasn't yet had time to draw a breath and plan what is next on his agenda.
Initially I'm just going to rest and let a few of my very tired body cells catch up again.John Dooley
"Initially I'm just going to rest and let a few of my very tired body cells catch up again," he says.
"I'm interested in a thousand things which I've never really had the chance to pursue. I'm very interested, academically, to see what floats up out of my subconscious when a large amount of my brain space is not exercised with work. Having been living a life of community contribution in one way or another for a long time, I'd like to think that I'd find some other way to continue to make some sort of community contribution to some sort of community. Exactly what that is I don't yet know but I'd be quite interested in seeing where my mind can take me."
Singing and acting could be high on his agenda. Previously a member of the Taree Arts Council and Kantabile Chamber Choir, he is looking forward to the chance to possibly return to singing and acting, both activities he loves to do.
For now, John is 'tricking' himself psychologically to 'ease' into retirement, by taking four weeks long service leave before his official retirement date. In 45 years of work, John has never taken any long service leave due to him. And in the past nine months, John has not had a break, thanks to bushfires and COVID-19.
Country boy turns into country vet
John grew up on a farm at Leeton and remembers, with amazing clarity, the moment he first thought he might like to be a vet, when a newly graduated vet came to the farm to attend to an animal.
"I remember them coming out and cutting out a fairly sizable lump off the skin of one of our cows. I can remember where it was, I remember where the cow was standing, I remember seeing blood going everywhere, and I remember thinking 'oh, I reckon I could do that to animals and make blood go everywhere!'. And so I have, many times," John laughs.
While the blood and gore of veterinary work might have appealed to John as a child, his real reasons for entering the profession were much more altruistic.
"I am pretty sure I felt from a fairly early age that that's what I would like to do," he says.
"But I recognised probably even at the outset that I wished to be a veterinarian in a community context. So I went into vets for people, but I recognised that one way of doing that, which would be a nice way to work, would be to do things for people by the medium of doing things for animals. And I think I can quite contentedly say that that's what happened."
Upon graduation from university, John's first job was at a practice in Taree for three years. This was followed by locum positions abroad in the UK, Ireland and Rhodesia.
I went into vets for people, but I recognised that one way of doing that, which would be a nice way to work, would be to do things for people by the medium of doing things for animals.
Upon returning to Australia John worked at various locum positions with a view to becoming permanent, before finally settling on a position in Wingham in May 1981 at Ross Deer's practice.
John took over the Wingham Veterinary Clinic in Isabella Street on January 1, 1983 when Ross Deer retired. And self employment started with a bang.
"I took over at midnight. At 3am the phone rang on that very first morning. Lionel Tisdell on the phone saying 'I think I've got a cow down with milk fever.' I said 'Lionel, it's three o'clock in the morning how the hell do you know?' He said, 'I got up to have a pee, and it's a bright moonlit night, and she's only just across the lane and I looked at her and I thought, she's not lying just right'," John remembers.
"Fifteen minutes later I was there and sure enough he was right. He had a cow down with milk fever and so I treated her and I thought, 'here we go. Three hours self employed at three o'clock in the morning, and here I am out treating a cow'."
He was the proprietor of the business for 28 years until 1991 when Wingham Veterinary Clinic and Valley Vets merged to become Wingham and Valley Vets, where he has been working ever since. He will be sorely missed by his colleagues.
"We are all so sad to see him go - he has made such an amazing contribution to the profession and to Wingham and has been a wonderful friend and colleague to all our staff," director of Wingham and Valley Vets, Alissa Healy says.
In some ways I feel like I am witnessing the end of an era, like he is one of the last of the James Herriot-style gentleman-vets.Alissa Healy, director Wingham and Valley Vets
"He really has been a giant of our profession and certainly a shining guiding light in my professional life, and that of so many other young vets.
"In some ways I feel like I am witnessing the end of an era, like he is one of the last of the James Herriot-style gentleman-vets.
"His contribution to the district has been immense."
A life changing practice
The life of a veterinarian is a difficult path to tread, what with the extreme nearly always on-call workload and the heavy emotional toll working with animals and their owners takes.
When asked if he became attached to his animal patients, John said he couldn't allow himself to do so.
"I believe I have always been more effective by not (becoming attached to patients)," John says.
I would have been mentally buggered long ago if I hadn't been able to keep that broad perspective, being able to wear my different hats but not getting emotionally involved. I would not possibly have lasted.
"It doesn't matter whether it's a euthanasia or whatever. I probably wouldn't have lasted if I'd been in positions where every teary adult, teary sets of kids... if I had not managed to maintain objectivity in my various roles in that to be the clinician, to be the surgeon or physician or whatever, but also to be the counsellor and the moral support and all these other things. I would have been mentally buggered long ago if I hadn't been able to keep that broad perspective, being able to wear my different hats but not getting emotionally involved. I would not possibly have lasted."
John has personally maintained a regular meditation practice since 1991, and says a Buddhist outlook on life has helped him maintain the objectivity required of him to be able to help clients and patients to the best of his ability. It has also helped in other ways.
"I have said numerous times that I am completely convinced that a long term meditation practice ended up making me a far better clinical vet than I think I might have become otherwise," he says.
"Because of the learned capacity to be still at times, to really focus, to really concentrate - call that mindfulness, call it what you want - means that ultimately you get some capacity to pick every single thing apart into its little pieces. I think it taught me how to notice subtlety way better than I might have previously.
"I think meditation made me concentrate and that probably helped my ability to pull my experience along with me. So I'm convinced that meditation did that for me along with all of its other benefits."
Alongside John's meditation practice, in time Buddhism has also seeped into both his personal and professional life.
"The things that have factored most into my more recent emotional development, philosophical change, have had a strong Buddhist slant. Buddhism appeals to me as a philosophy because it's not a prescriptive religion. I'm entirely comfortable with it," John says.
A passion for mentoring
While John will no longer be attending the surgery and treating animal patients or dealing with clients, chances are he won't be divorcing himself from the veterinary world entirely.
He has long been a mentor for veterinary students and new graduates and hopes to continue volunteering his time in that capacity.
"I've done a fair bit of mentoring, seen a lot of students, and am quite keen, I'm considered a good teacher, and I'm quite keen to continue to have input in some way to final year student education or new graduates, because I think I've got a fair bit to contribute," John says.
"Something that I've been lucky in is that I've got a very good memory. The beauty of that has been I think I have been very good at learning from my own experience. Often that can help maximise the outcomes but it's also very good for teaching purposes, to be able to say to a student, 'if ever you're in this situation, use my experience from way back and do not do this'.
in common with all new grads I made significant mistakes, but I would have made fewer if I was better supervised.
"In common with all new grads I made significant mistakes, but I would have made fewer if I was better supervised. And I think I'd probably remember every one of those mistakes. I don't beat myself up about it, but the fact that I can remember that reinforces everything that I would like to see happen with student and new graduate education."
John's passion for mentoring is not least informed by his concern about the high suicide rates in his profession. He counts unrealistic expectations on fresh graduates and lack of proper supervision among the reasons for such poor statistics.
The respect John has earned as a mentor is evident. A post on the Wingham and Valley Vets' Facebook page announcing John's retirement generated a lot of comments, not only from clients, but former students and graduates who expressed their gratitude for his mentorship.
To find that when I pull up, a lot of people have come out of the woodwork saying things that make me think, 'isn't this beaut; that people have actually understood that at all times I've been on their side in the particular thing and that's extremely heartening.
When asked about the highlight of his career, John mentions the Facebook comments, and is visibly emotional about it. He was surprised and humbled, and pleased that people understood he was always 'in their corner'.
"To find that when I pull up, a lot of people have come out of the woodwork saying things that make me think, 'isn't this beaut; that people have actually understood that at all times I've been on their side in the particular thing and that's extremely heartening," he says.
John also feels gratitude that he has been able to serve the community via his career, and for the people he has worked with.
"Having the opportunity to serve a community has been wonderful, good and bad," he says.
"I have been very fortunate to have been in contact with very many people whose support has been unqualified. None of anything I have managed to do has happened in isolation. I have always been very fortunate in the people I have had around me.
"The opportunity to serve and provide has been wonderful, it's been very enriching. I've had a quite fascinating and interesting professional life.
"I have had a really fortunate working life."