HARRISTON – Recently retired after nearly 50 years in veterinary medicine, Dr. Terry Fisk has no doubts about his chosen career path.
“The only thing I ever wanted to be was a veterinarian. If I had not been accepted into veterinary school, I’m not sure what I would have done, because I had no other plans,” said Fisk in a Jan. 11 interview at the clinic where he has practiced for the past five decades.
Fisk’s interest in the field came naturally. His father, Dr. Ken Fisk ,set up a veterinary practice upon moving to Harriston in 1949, working out of the basement of his house before transferring to a newly-built office on Queen Street.
Terry recalls the office was built in 1960 or ’61, at the same time another veterinarian, Dr. Bill Lawless, joined Ken as a partner.
“I used to ride with him all the time,” said Terry, noting the experience was often harrowing as his dad had a reputation as “a very fast and somewhat careless driver.
“Even when he got up at night, I would ask him to get me up. I liked to go with him … there was something there that I enjoyed and obviously led to my career,” Terry recalled.
Terry joined the practice in 1975, after completing studies at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, just in time to take over for his father, who took a job with the provincial agriculture ministry as supervisor of livestock sales barns for Ontario.
“I started here … April 20, 1975 and he left in March of 1975,” said Terry, who purchased his father’s share of the practice about a year later.
Inspired by his father
Terry says his father was his inspiration to become a veterinarian.
“Just seeing him doing what he was doing and the pleasure he seemed to get out of it and how respectful his clients were of him and his abilities – I just felt that that was what I wanted,” he stated.
Terry notes his sister Susan has also played a large role in the business.
“She has been a major plus for me. The practice expanded in the early ‘80s to an office in Mount Forest and we took on new graduate Jim Fairless, who became my partner when Bill left,” Terry notes.
With two offices on the go, the business began taking on new graduates and another partner, Dr. Richard Lefebvre, joined in 2005, bringing the team complement to three vets and six staff.
Lefebvre and Fairless eventually left, leaving Terry to run the two offices. At that time he became affiliated with Drayton-based veterinarian Dr. Richard Devos.
“He and I shared on-calls and worked together because it was a very heavy workload,” said Terry.
He recalled early days of the practice were dominated by large-animal clients. That changed over the years as fewer local farms included livestock operations and cash cropping became more common in the area.
In addition, several large veterinary operations took on much of the remaining livestock business.
Change in focus
“When I started here in 1975, this practice was 80% large and 20% small and by the time we split the practice (around 2001), it was 20% large and 80% small,” he points out.
Large animal practice is more physically demanding on a vet, Terry points out.
“It basically destroyed my shoulders to the point I couldn’t do large animals anymore,” said Terry, although he notes, “I looked after the clients that were loyal to me the best I could.”
However, around 2010, his truck and much of his equipment were destroyed by fire.
“So I decided that I was going to have to replace all my equipment and decided that was the time to give up large animals. So after that I was strictly small.”
Bringing a sick animal back to health is among the most rewarding aspects of veterinary medicine. However, Terry recalls his first case taught him something even though the patient didn’t survive.
A farmer called about a beef cow being down in his barn and Terry was sent to handle the situation.
“So I went and did all the things that I could think of and treated the animal for what I thought the problem was,” he explained.
Updates from the farmer indicated little change in the animal’s condition over the next two days, after which the farmer called and said, “Cow died. You weren’t much good. You didn’t help much.”
Still unsure what had killed the cow, Fisk asked the farmer for permission to do a post-mortem exam, no charge of course.
“I needed to know why things didn’t work out the way they should have,” said Terry, adding it turned out the problem was a ruptured bladder; a situation medical intervention was unlikely to have solved.
The revelation was a relief to Terry and some comfort to the farmer, who realized, “I’d probably done about as much as I could.
“So 50 years later … I never saw another case like that, ever,” he points out.
The experience helped clarify a lesson from his college days.
“When we were in our final year at vet college, we had a professor come in one morning for a lecture. He says. ‘I want you to remember something when you get out into the field as a practicing veterinarian. And that is, common things are common and rare things are rare.’
“I sat there and thought to myself, that’s a stupid thing to say … of course, we all know that. And then after this case, I thought, you know what? He was right.
“I was I was unable to determine what the problem was and that’s because it was a rare situation. If it had been a common problem, hopefully I would have gotten on top of it and resolved the problem. That still sticks with me to this day, what he said that in that lecture and how it applied to my first case as a veterinarian,” Terry recalled.
Considering himself an “old school” vet, Terry says he often did house calls when it seemed appropriate.
“In most cases it was where the pet needed to be euthanized and the pet was in a lot of pain. It was uncomfortable, very difficult to move, but I would go to the home and provide that service.
“And I think (clients) appreciated that because of the concern I had for the wellbeing of the pet and the discomfort or pain or suffering it was going to have … in order to come to my office.”
While the practice has provided Terry with a good living and “the satisfaction of a job well done,” he says he will remember most the appreciation of his clients.
“It’s nice to be paid. But I got more satisfaction out of people showing their gratitude and thanking me,” he said.
“I mean, (thank you are) two words that are very easy to say, but a lot of times we don’t. We should be doing that more often, because in my position it meant a lot to me to realize that they were grateful for what I had provided and they understood that I did the best I could.
“There are lots of things that I couldn’t make better … That’s the bonus of the rural community, as long as you give them the effort and do the best you can, they’re satisfied.”
Although veterinary business is demanding, Terry has been able to make the time to raise a family, be a part of the local Kinsmen Club and Royal Canadian Legion branch and work within his church (he was chair of the Minto Refugee Settlement Committee which was affiliated with the local Presbyterian church), as well as a stint in local politics as a former deputy mayor of the Town of Minto.
“I guess I do a decent job of managing my time. My wife says I try to do too many things in too short a time, but that’s been my nature,” he explains.
“I’m very fortunate to be in the position I’ve been in all these years and I feel it’s really important for someone in my position, being as successful as I’ve been, to give back to my community.
“I think that’s crucial … because there are a lot of people in lots of situations that are less fortunate … If we can help, I feel that that’s our duty as citizens of the community.”
As he winds down his business, helping his clients obtain their pets’ records and find new service providers, Fisk’s greatest regret is that he was unable to find someone to take over.
“I’ve retired and the practice is closing because this generation of veterinarians don’t want to come to rural Ontario, which is unfortunate,” he points out.
“This is an established business. It’s a successful business. Yes, you have to work at it, but you should have to work at whatever your job is.”
Terry says he was “more than willing” to stay on with a new practitioner “to help them over the hump” and get them established.
“The practice was listed for over a year. Not one inquiry in that year for an established business that again, you can make a good living at it,” he added.
“You have to work at it and you have to provide the service. You have to be available.”
Concern for clients
“My biggest concern with what’s going on here is what happens to my clients,” he said,
“They’ve been loyal to me for 50 years, or whatever the case may be and all of a sudden, I’m not here.
“So I feel like that was the most difficult thing for me to grasp when I decided it was time for me to retire, because I knew nobody was coming to take my place.
“I’d just like to make sure my clients understand that I really appreciate the support over the years and I’m going to miss it.”