Vet on call: Catherine loves all creatures, great and small

   Behind the dark blue doors of ‘All Creatures’ in Lanesboro Street, Roscommon, there is a very sophisticated 21 st century veterinary practice run by a team of highly-qualified surgeons and staff.    A surgery existed originally on the Athlone Road owned by John O’Rourke, and then John built the current practice in Lanesboro Street. There are 6 veterinary surgeons, one of whom is Catherine O’Rourke, John’s sister. The O’Rourke farm in Creggs was the breeding ground where Catherine was nurtured and at an early age, she followed her brother John over the grasslands tending to the farm animals.       Almost immediately, she caught the veterinary bug. ‘I was in 6 th class in national school,’ she tells me, ‘when John qualified as a vet. I’d spend all my time in the school holidays going around to different farms with him.  When I did my Leaving Certificate at Ballygar Secondary School, I knew the points for veterinary surgery were high so I decided I’d go for dentistry, needing lower points.     ‘I didn’t get the necessary points and re-sat my Leaving Certificate at the Yeats College in Galway. When I got my results I had done better than I expected and had sufficient points to allow me to start my studies in  veterinary medicine at UCD in Dublin.’      Intriguingly, Roscommon has a remarkable heritage when it comes to female veterinary surgeons, one I only stumbled upon after meeting with Catherine. Aleen Isobel Cust, born in Ireland as the daughter of an aristocratic English family, was the first woman in the British Isles to become a veterinary surgeon.      But it is her roots here that are most interesting. Although this pioneering woman completed the full veterinary course in Edinburgh  in 1900, over 20 years passed before she found her full recognition. Having decided to work in Ireland, she came to Roscommon to work in a practice owned and run by William Augustine  Byrne, a Roscommon native, with a practice in Castlestrange near Athleague. After his death, Aleen, a remarkable woman of her time, bought a house in Athleague and took over his practice.     At the time, she was the only working female vet in much of Europe. But even then, she faced discrimination. It was not until the 1919 enactment of the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act, forbidding the exclusion of women from any profession purely on account of their sex, that Aleen began to gain the full recognition she deserved. Finally, in December 1922, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons gave this Roscommon woman permission to sit the final examination, gaining her a Diploma at the age of 54 .   Today, of course, women vets do not face such a struggle. But the training undertaken by our own contemporary female vet is nonetheless daunting. Having gained her place at UCD in Dublin, Catherine also travelled to Cardiff, England and South Africa, which opened up whole new avenues for her.                                                     Catherine particularly enjoyed the clinical aspect of her studies, which gave her an insight into the groundwork she would engage in throughout her career. It was a 5 year course, the first 3 being more academic than clinical.  ‘I have to say it was tough,’ she goes on. ‘Your day began at 7.00 a.m., when you would take care of animals brought in by clients, then you would have lectures that would go on until  11 a.m.     ‘There were surgeries where you would observe and attend clinics which I found most interesting and, of course, you got ‘hands-on’ experience. We were a class of 63, with 10 students from America, Botswana, Nairobi.’    She qualified in 2003 and is now one of the 2,395 veterinary surgeons in Ireland, 585 of them women.  Having qualified, it was not to her native Roscommon to which she first returned but rather to the North, and to Portadown. ‘There was a very good surgeon there, Ewing Walker, who had a very good reputation  and also there was a very good small animal clinic which would give me a good start and where I would gain valuable experience.    ‘I also had the opportunity of going to various farms to learn all about T.B. testing. I enjoyed my working time there but socially you had to keep within your own group and there were certain areas you would not frequent. I spent 9 months there testing cattle, horses and small animals, then the position came up in Roscommon.’    To the passer-by, the practice in Lanesboro Street might seem a quiet shop — but behind the doors, there is a wealth of activity which immediately grips you as you enter the reception. You can purchase anything from an animal key ring to a large 20kg bag of super cream calf milk replacer.    Here, the staff are busy on a daily basis. There is always something happening and, Catherine says, each season brings its own problems.      ‘In spring we could have 10 calves on a drip at any one time. We would see a lot of young lambs and cows after calfing. There wouldn’t be a very high death rate in large animals, but it would be quite high in young lambs. Five vets would deal with the large animals and sometimes we could have 30 to 40 in here in a day.     ‘Winter would bring in cows who could be in calf and we might have to do a section, which could take up to about an hour. Farmers would also bring in cows suffering from pneumonia.    ‘This time of year when the temperature rises, there is the ‘red water’ problem caused by a parasite. Summertime would mean less animals being ill but then we would be busy with sculling, de-horning, castration, testing cattle.’     Each day can bring an unexpected problem. Catherine, literally, does not know which animal is about to be brought in through the door. She tells me: ‘We would also tend to animals with cuts or injuries. The large animal surgery deals with calves who may have a blocked gut or the common part of the gut may be missing. They would present with a bloated  appearance. We would have to open up and join together.       ‘Caesarean surgery would be the most common in cattle. Sometimes we would come across twisted stomachs and on occasions we might have to do eye surgery. Horses would be brought in to be rasped. I would deal with any teeth problems in cats and dogs and any orthopaedic problems, which of course would be the most time-consuming as it may be necessary to do pinning, plating, and X-rays.     ‘Dogs and cats would be brought in with various infections and sometimes after road accidents with various injuries and trauma. Rabbits would in the main come in with teeth problems as their teeth are continually growing.’    In her role as a vet in a country town, Catherine is also in a unique position to witness the changes in Ireland. Where once we were always associated with the donkey – and the farmer mainly with his sheep dog – now we have so many urban areas that we have become a nation of animal lovers, particularly household pets, similar to America and England.     Twenty five years ago, a ‘poodle parlour’ would have been scoffed at, and putting a dog in a kennel when an owner went on holiday was unheard of. Nowadays, we go to the barber or hairdressing salon while we drop our pet off to the modern animal grooming parlour. Ireland has changed so much that now virtually everyone has a pet and we are willing to pay for them and make sure they are looked after.      These are changes Catherine sees every day. ‘People didn’t have the money years ago and medicines were not readily available. Now, we are prepared to spend between 400 to 900 euro on a puppy, and a lot more for a pedigree.  There is a great availability of medicines even in a small town, better licensed specifically for animals.  Most families have a pet and they only realise how attached they have become to them when something happens to them. Sadly, if an animal is suffering, then the only humane action is to put them to sleep.’    She also, rightly, makes the point that if someone takes on a dog as a pet, it really must be cared for and not abandoned when no longer convenient. ‘The other real sadness and suffering is for the animal, like a dog, who isn’t taken care of, such as the ones brought in to the ISPCA, the ones who don’t have a home and shouldn’t have to be put to sleep.’    Catherine’s job is very challenging, and each day brings a great sense of satisfaction. The role which she finds most rewarding is surgery, and taking care of animals left in her care.   While Catherine spends her days around animals in her practice, at the end of the day she still returns home to her puppy, Buddy, a little shitsu, with long hair usually tied in a pony tail! Would she contemplate doing any other job? ‘I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I suppose I spent so much time with my brother in his job as a vet and it became so familiar to me that it was the only course to follow and I am learning all the time’.    There does not seem to be an end to Catherine’s day because there always has to be someone on call. Having recently got married, Catherine comments: ‘It will be a big problem for me to juggle married life and a family around this particular job so things may have to change to suit my home life.’    Doubtless, she will accomplish that. And her historic predecessor, the Roscommon-based first female vet in Ireland, would be proud of Catherine, whatever she decides.