Pursuing her life’s plan
SIOUX CENTER – Dr. Cari Van Zweden is not afraid of hard work – nor of big animals.
Van Zweden, a 27-year-old large-animal veterinarian, grew up on a dairy farm, where she was the youngest of five children.
Her family also custom fed beef cattle.
Their dairy cows’ veterinary care is one of Van Zweden’s earliest memories.
“When we had the vet come out, my dad would seat me on an overturned pail and I’d watch the procedure,” she said.
He’d been taking her along for barn chores when she was about 3.
Van Zweden remembers watching that veterinarian repair a displaced abomasum, or twisted gut, in a dairy cow. The abomasum is the true stomach of ruminates. It does the actual digestion work.
Was she grossed out by the procedure?
“Not at all,” she said, surprised by the question. “I was fascinated.”
She still is, more than two decades later.
78-hour work week
Van Zweden and Dr. Wayne Searcy are partners in Sioux Center Veterinary Clinic. Founded more than 35 years ago, their practice serves clients within a 50-mile radius of Sioux Center.
Searcy started his career there in 1979 and became a partner in 1989.
Now he is looking forward to selling the practice to Van Zweden and retiring one day.
Van Zweden has already begun the process of buying Searcy’s share of the practice.
For now, the two doctors are both working six 12-hour days every week, along with taking emergency calls on Sundays, which Searcy said are not uncommon.
When the market is good, it is harder to find candidates for open positions, he said.
Nonetheless, the two vets have been actively recruiting and just recently hired a third large-animal veterinarian. They are also are planning for a renovation-addition project to create space for a small-animal veterinarian – a new service for the clinic.
A rough start
An Iowa native, Van Zweden chose South Dakota State University for her pre-veterinary college program.
That’s because SDSU’s program prepared top students to jump into vet school after just three years of undergraduate work. She said good grades qualified her for early admission, and she couldn’t wait to begin pursuing her long-held goal full-time.
From SDSU, Van Zweden, – who worked for a veterinary practice while doing work-study and taking advanced classes in high school – headed to the University of Missouri-College of Veterinary Medicine, at Columbia.
Currently, 80 to 85 percent of veterinary students nationwide are women. It’s a figure that has jumped dramatically in five years, from just 17.5 percent in 2009.
And, according to the American Veterinary Association’s 2014 data, just 19 percent of all female vets choose Van Zweden’s path – to work exclusively in large-animal medicine.
“You’ve gotta be ballsy,” Van Zweden said of succeeding in her career choice. “It was rough starting out.”
She recalled making a farm visit to treat a 2,000-pound stock cow suffering from a vaginal prolapse. The farmer asked her why the male vet didn’t come.
“I am perfectly capable of doing that job,” she said. It remains a bitter memory.
Van Zweden said she loves her work, although it means long hours from her husband, Josh, and 1-year-old son, Jude.
Van Zweden worked in a vet’s office while in high school at Rock Valley, and then put herself through college and vet school. Searcy said he hired her because of her work ethic, familiarity with large animals and her expertise.
“I’ve had vets in and out,” Searcy said. “They thought they were entitled to a big paycheck and holidays and weekends off.
“I’ve always thought (my practice) was cheap enough and fast enough (to build the business).”
He said Van Zweden is not from a “comfortable life” and knows the meaning of hard work.
Clinic is busy place
The clinic’s facilities include a cattle barn equipped with a squeeze chute to hold animals securely while being treated.
Searcy and two assistants were putting a trailer-full of young bull calves through their typical initial medical treatments – a deworming medicine, vaccinations and a shot of antibiotics, all of which preceded the calves’ castration and dehorning.
Van Sweden grabbed a mask, pulled on gloves and took hold of a sterile surgical instrument as she stepped in briefly to expedite the process.
The calves are a bit skittish after the only seconds-long castration surgery, but calm down readily once they are freed from the chute.
The one-story barn’s treatment space is designed to accommodate a trailer-full of animals at one time. The building also holds a large surgical suite, for Cesarean sections, bloat surgery, a ruminostomy or other major problems.
It’s also used for more minor procedures, such as hoof trimming.
Van Zweden believes that hauling calves to the vet’s office is a trend that will grow rapidly over the next five years, and vets will do more consulting than actively treating animals.
Already, hogs are being made sterile without surgery. A one-time chemical treatment that prevent sperm production is in the testing phase now, she said.
Van Zweden thinks that in five years the same treatment will be available for cattle and easily administered by the farmer – no vet necessary, except for a prescription, perhaps, or a consultation.
The Sioux Center Veterinary Clinic is tucked into the industrial north side of the city along U.S. Highway 75, making it accessible to livestock trucks and trailers.
Much of the routine care for cattle and other livestock is done at the office, which includes the barn. That infrastructure will stay in place and perhaps be expanded in the future.
Searcy said it makes sense to vaccinate a trailer full of animals at the veterinary facility, which is designed for that, rather than to pay three or four professional staff members for travel time and the time spent securing the animals to receive such routine care.
And, Searcy said, the farmers can always find an errand to run when they’re in town, so it works for them, too.