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Mandisa Greene's James McCall Memorial Lecture - October 2020

Mandisa Greene - RCVS Senior Vice-President

This is an adaptation of RCVS President Mandisa Greene's Professor James McCall Memorial Lecture delivered on Wednesday 28 October 2020 as part of the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine's Black History Month celebrations. 

Thank you very much for the kind introduction Professor Cameron and thank you to the University of Glasgow Vet School for giving me the opportunity to deliver this year’s James McCall Lecture. It’s such an honour to be asked to share my career journey and vision of the future of the profession with you.

Mandisa GreeneI would like to talk to you today about changing the face of the veterinary professions through adaptability and innovation. I will walk you through my journey to date and point out where and why I’ve had to adapt and innovate. I will also touch on my vision for changing the face of our professions highlighting four priorities.

My journey provides the context for why I dream big and also why I have the believed that those dreams can come true. I should start by defining for you what I mean by adaptability and innovation.

Adaptability is dynamic, it is about having the same goal in sight while adjusting what one does to fit a new set of circumstances. To me it can be about thriving, but it’s about survival mainly.

Innovation is about starting something new, trying something completely different – sometimes uncertain of all the circumstances and uncertain about the outcome.  Innovation to me is about courage and curiosity.

My career journey begins when the President of the RCVS said the final line to the declaration: “I do hereby admit you as members of the said Royal College and by the same power do confer upon you the right to be styled veterinary surgeons and to be known and deemed and recognised henceforth as duly qualified members of the veterinary profession.”

And he invited us, before we congratulated ourselves too much, to turn around and find the face of our loved ones and say THANK YOU to them. I turned to see amongst my loved ones my mother crying tears which I suspect were half relief and half pride. He informed us that the sweat and tears that go into a veterinary degree are sometimes not ours alone, and in that moment, I knew this was true.

My entire family had supported me tremendously through this journey, but special mention at this point needs to be made of my mother who had been a major source of support, strength and encouragement from an early age but especially memorable through the rocky parts of vet school. My mother’s advice on that day is what began my career. She suggested I take the advice of the wise RCVS President and go to see Mr and Mrs Brown who had been my clinical EMS placement providers since year 3 and extend those same thanks.

Mr and Mrs Brown had also been through the ups and downs with me and had always assured me I had what it took to be a brilliant vet - despite what some of my assessments suggested. So on graduation day, when it is typically all about the graduand, I made the journey to them to share my gratitude and joy. Their happiness at my success was palpable and when they asked what I was doing tomorrow, I didn’t realise that this would indeed be my first day of work, employed by the Browns as a real life vet.

I worked part-time in what was an extremely supportive and friendly environment. The Browns were patient and kind mentors and supported the beginnings of my professional career until I started to hunger for more challenge… after a few months I moved to Staffordshire for my first full time job. I chose Staffordshire because my mum lived there, and as well as needing the free accommodation, I wanted to be close to a support network for this major step. My first adaptation.

In my first full-time job, I also did my own out-of-hours cover one in every four nights. I enjoyed all aspects of this job, but as time moved on I enjoyed the out-of-hours aspect more. The responsibility of working up a case on my own thrilled me and I enjoyed the time to think when the practice was empty at nights and weekends.

My husband Hector and I started our family and, although I initially continued working full time days and out-of-hours, the arrival of our second son highlighted the need to adapt to our changing circumstances.

When your toddler can recognise the ringtone of the on-call phone and the sound of it is starting to send you into cold sweats, then you know it’s definitely time for a change. 

I examined what I loved about my job and gravitated to the part that provided me with the most joy. There was an added bonus of being able to work full-time hours over three nights, so I could be with and enjoy my family on my days off. I worked as part of a skeletal team, usually myself and one nurse. This gave me the space to think and learn and thrive. 

There is a saying that many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. I certainly had a lot of fatigue in those days. I had a toddler and a newborn and I was adapting to working full-time at night which, as I found out, was somewhat different to being on call. It was at this time that my fear of the RCVS began, my fear that eventually morphed into curiosity.

The RCVS seemed like an urban myth or legend, everyone I spoke to had a different account of the organisation. I’d found out about RCVS Council and decided to innovate for the first time in my professional career. I would stand for RCVS Council, the process seemed simple enough and if there was the slightest chance I could be successful, I would take it. In my year it seemed a record number of people had the same thought. I went on to be successful and would never forget when the Registrar called me with the news I started to scream and my youngest, who was about eight months old at the time, began to dig his nose and shoved his finger into my open mouth…I think the registrar was grateful for this intervention. I came back down to earth VERY QUICKLY!  That aside, innovation requires courage. Courage, of course, doesn’t mean I felt brave throughout the entire process, but it did mean I felt the fear and did it anyway.

Working nights and being on RCVS Council, I started to develop my rhythm. A couple of years in it would be time to adapt again. It would be family circumstances that made the change necessary for me. This time it was my mother. She had received a diagnosis of cancer and required surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I lived 25 minutes away from my mum but was the closest geographically of all my siblings. The support she would need was uncertain - friends, oncologist and charities all had such variable experiences. What became clear to me was the need for flexibility. I still loved my job and wanted to continue it, but I needed to be available should mum need to be taken to an appointment or having a bad day or to sit with her after her treatments. It was around this time that I became a volunteer for Vetlife, a 24/7 email and phone helpline which offers independent confidential and free help to everyone in the veterinary community.

Locuming was a good adjustment. I stuck to out-of-hours and it provided me with the flexibility to prioritise my mother and family life, as well as all continuing with the job I loved and my RCVS commitments. By the end of mum’s treatment I had been locuming for a while and met a variety of people. One particular message that kept coming back to me was that I was good at explaining to the nurses what was going on with the cases we were treating. 

I am passionate about knowledge and ensuring every team member is informed as I believe it improves animal care and welfare. The nurses fed back that whilst that might be so, I had a particular way of doing it that was very effective. 

One of those nurses told me about a maternity cover lecturing veterinary nurses studying at Harper Adams University. She suggested I should try for it… this would be unlike anything I had done before. I read about James McCall the founder of this vet school and about how in the beginning he just began by teaching a few students alongside his work in practice. The number of students grew larger, sufficient that McCall applied for a Royal Charter to open a veterinary college. We had the same academic beginnings but not quite the same ending. Innovation requires courage and curiosity. I got the job and spent 12 months lecturing a range of veterinary sciences to undergraduates and postgraduates. What I learned at this job was the nurses I’d met along the way weren’t wrong, I did have a particular way about explaining things that was effective and I enjoyed that job.

My children both being at primary school now gave me the opportunity to return full circle to where I began part time in GP practice. I realised I missed things like developing relationships with clients. In out-of-hours practice I would rarely see the same client twice (except the usual Labradors at Christmas and Easter) and I missed that. During this time I ran for and became Junior Vice President of the RCVS because I felt there was more I could do to be of service to the profession…and that leads me to here.

Becoming the President, let alone the first Black President of the RCVS is an honour and a privilege. I have had huge support from everyone at the College and of course my husband Hector and my wider family. I know I will be a visible symbol to many, highlighting what black people are able to achieve. I will be a role model for many and intend to spend this year and beyond highlighting diversity in our profession, so that imaginations of the next generation will include veterinary surgeon and RCVS President in their career options. I’ve already started with two young people… my sons Tanashe and Asafa.

That whistle stop tour of my journey thus far has strongly influenced my top four priorities for the profession which I am going to share with you now.

And to my vision for the future of our professions, this is a difficult question for a dreamer - the RCVS team know how endless my dreams for our future are, but that’s for a separate lecture. I would like to outline for you my 4 major priorities for our professions:

  1. Increasing access for physically disabled vets to our veterinary degree
  2. Having a profession free from discrimination
  3. Increasing diversity within our profession
  4. Celebrating the contribution of GP vets.

I have seen our professions adapt and innovate throughout this pandemic in ways that no one could have imagined 12 months ago. I see so many possibilities for change in the future. For example, us changing the way we continue to do our jobs in an environmentally sustainable way. But I want to talk to you today about how we go about changing the face of our professions through adaptability and innovation.

First, I would like to see the day when our professions will be more accessible to disabled colleagues. The possibility that disability will no longer be a barrier to obtaining a veterinary degree or becoming a Member of the RCVS. That if colleagues face unforeseen circumstances, and find themselves with a disability, that this need not signal the end of their careers. This is one of the principle-based recommendations that the Legislation Working Party has put forward, and which the professions and public have an opportunity to engage with (in the consultation) from next month.

I believe this is an important step because much of being a vet is about knowledge, communication and judgement. Our bodies are the tools we use to gain more information, but an inability to turn a sheep or raise a cow’s hoof should not stop a gifted and talented mind from obtaining a veterinary degree with a limited licence to practice.

Would this require adaptation or innovation? It believe it would require both, but it would make us leaders in the global veterinary community and it would require curiosity and courage. This will also ultimately increase recruitment and increase the number of vets on the register. 

I want to see veterinary professions where there is no discrimination. No discrimination against gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, religion, age and disability. Martin Luther King Jr once had a dream that his children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin. I too share that dream and expand it to all the characteristics. If we can create a truly inclusive professions where all feel equal and welcome regardless of their background, heritage or preferences, where we truly hold a zero tolerance policy to discrimination of any sort not just by words but also actions, then we could have professions where our members can do their jobs without fear of discrimination, harassment or prejudice. 

This requires adaptation. There is nothing new in this concept and it would require adapting behaviours and professional conduct to ensure team members feel truly protected and supported. I can only envisage a rise in retention and more colleagues feeling a part of the veterinary team.

And to diversity. Some of what I have suggested previously will increase diversity. Diversity of thought, experience and ethnicity will only enrich the depth of conversation. The RCVS Diversity and Inclusion group, which is populated by all relevant stakeholder groups, is currently working on an action plan which hopes to address the following:

  • Recruitment to vet/VN training and education
  • Retention and support within the vet/VN schools (undergraduate and postgraduate)
  • Recruitment within the profession
  • Retention and support within the professions
  • Wider culture change.

So we are working on it. I was struck by the tale of the smallpox vaccine as a case for diversity. Doctors had tried to find a cure for smallpox without success and it was when they included a more diverse range of people in the conversation, as it was a farmer who noted that his milk maids having previously contracted cowpox were not contracting smallpox, that they realised the key to the smallpox vaccine was within the bovine material and therein began the work on the smallpox vaccination.

If we say we truly want animal welfare to be our priority, then shutting people out does not benefit animal welfare, letting them in does. Is this necessary for survival of our profession? Yes. Does it require courage and curiosity from some? For sure.

And to my vision for general practitioners. I would like for our professions to collective appreciate and highlight the contribution made by our general practitioners. In my opinion General practice is often overlooked as a career option. General practitioners work every day to ensure the health and welfare of the animals under their care, and the way they have continued to approach their jobs during the pandemic has been awe inspiring, offering the highest possible standards of care to their patients. They are highly skilled and we should continue to appreciate that. 

By working together individual vets, corporates, academics, pathologists public health vets and the entire range of veterinary professionals in-between, if this is as clear to you as it is to me, let us bring our collective skills together and be truly innovative and adapt to a better future.

In my career thus far I have made many adaptations, primarily to fit circumstances around my family. Family is important to me, and it takes everyone listening getting in touch with your own personal priorities that will allow you to adapt. And for our profession how we next adapt will be as a result of where the priorities are, for us it is currently navigating through a pandemic, in a few months’ time it may be navigating the end of a transition period.

Innovation for me was sometimes born out of fear but ultimately driven by curiosity and courage. The what ifs? Curiosity for change is essential to our evolution and as a profession that curiosity should drive us into roads previously untraveled. 

In summary my journey has influenced my vision for the future. I believe these priorities are both realistic and achievable and within our grasp… the question I would like you to reflect on…. Can you see it too?

Published on 16 November 2020

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