This month’s featured relief vet is Seattle-based Dr. Xuân Mai Võ. She’s a mountain biking, hiking, international traveler whose had an exciting career path so far as a rodeo vet, anatomy professor, emergency responder, and archeologist just to name a few. Let’s dig in to find out more about our amazing colleague Dr. Võ.

What inspired you to become a veterinarian?

Horses and my passion for science. My mom is an MD and my dad a biomedical engineer so my toys growing up were stuffed animals and medical equipment I’d snag from my parents’ offices. I watched the Black Stallion as a child and that triggered my passion for horses. I was determined to become a horse vet since my parents told me we’d never be able to afford a horse of my own. I figured I’d just take care of other people’s.

What roles have you had within the veterinary profession? How about outside of this industry?

I’ve been a research assistant in the equine sports medicine field (respiratory focus),  a large animal medical, surgical, and NICU tech.  I externed in equine practices in England, France, and at the Swiss National Stud. As an equine vet I’ve been an ambulatory,  racetrack official, and rodeo vet. I was a clinical professor of gross anatomy at a vet school for 10 years and a PR and content consultant for an oncology department. For companion animals, where most of my experience lies, I’ve worked in ER, shelter and GP practice. I was part of the emergency response team for the state of Michigan. I’m an acupuncturist and a pain practitioner.   Outside of the industry the most notable job I’ve had thanks to my background was that of faunal remains specialist for an archaeological dig in Israel.

What made you switch to relief practice?

I wanted to have a healthy work-life balance. (Interesting how so many people think work is life when in fact there’s a distinction between the two!)

What are your favorite things about being a relief vet?

Professionally, I love the feeling of getting to know new people, the fun challenges of being a refreshing source for clients, and sharing the knowledge I’ve gained from other clinics. Having that malleable mentality to function as a relief vet makes me a more confident, transparent doctor, more capable of managing the unknown and the unexpected. Personally, I do it for the flexibility of picking my time off to pursue the things that are most important to my happiness.

What are your least favorite things about being a relief vet?

My schedule is not flexible once it is set and the financial cost of being self employed and covering all of our expenses. There’s no revenue if I physically can’t work, the taxes, and balancing saying yes or no to contracts to keep the revenue coming but not burn out.

How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?

The benefits of relief doctors are multifold: we can continue the revenue stream for a clinic when a vet is out of the office. We bring new ideas: we’ve seen both awesome and terrible things, so we are good sources of knowledge, tips, and tricks for medical and practice solutions.  We bring our own expertise to clinics that may not offer a certain service (such as feline friendly techniques, acupuncture and pain management in my case). I think we are also very diplomatic and good at thinking outside the box.  We are dedicated to doing a good job because by making a clinic thrive, working well with the staff, and bonding with clients helps sustain our own business. We’re usually well rested and refreshed because we’ve had to learn to set good boundaries to stay physically and mentally healthy.

What supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job? 

My stethoscope, computer, brain, and my sense of humor. (And acupuncture needles if needed.)

What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?

Quality medicine, clear and professional communication, respect and appreciation for team members as well as for customers.

Have you picked up any unique practice tips while being a relief vet? These could be related to medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really. 

So many! I couldn’t possibly list them all! My favorite practice tip I’ve had since 2003 is handling all cats without scruffing. Having a scribe during my exam helps flow, efficiency, reminds me of the things I said during an exam and being able to send owners home with notes from the appointment helps with compliance and making what we do a bit less confusing. The most important tip which I see being utilized over and over at successful practices relates to the culture of a practice: setting limits and appropriate expectations through transparent, positive, and direct communication within staff and for clients.  We work in a field where we offer services to fill the demand of maintaining an animal’s health and quality of life. Both the need for services and the dedication veterinary professionals have for helping animals and their owners are infinite and that is exhausting. Setting expectations and limits helps both pet owners and staff navigate a situation to maximize positive outcomes for the patient, the owner, and the clinic. The most successful clinics that have the happiest staff and most dedicated clients are the ones that follow this philosophy and value the role the clinic plays in their local community.

What is your most memorable relief job? There are so many memorable moments, touching, funny, and even disastrous ones. Admittedly the most memorable relief job was coming into a brand new clinic and helping them grow from a one doctor to three doctor clinic in two years by providing my knowledge and skills as a doctor, technician, pain management warrior, organization geek, and most importantly, as a friend. We had no exam tables but worked on the floor and on couches in the exam rooms (washable covers). We did all phlebotomies and minor procedures in the room, so the owners could see how we did things, which made owners more appreciative of the difficulty of our jobs as well as more amenable to multiple visits if that was less stressful for the pet.

What advice would you give new relief vets? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief vet?) 

Set your policies and limits, value yourself. Use your community for advice. Understand there are pros and cons, and decide for yourself what sacrifices you are willing to make or not make in your practice. You define your business and the services you offer. Be flexible, but don’t be a pushover. There’s a symbiosis between clinics and relief vets, neither should abuse the other and everyone should be happy with the existence of the other.

How has the global pandemic affected your relief practice?

Personally I was unemployed for almost a month when all my practices dropped relief services as stressful as the unpredictability was, I appreciated the time at home to evaluate and learn about the situation. My close humans are in the public health sector so I was drinking up the information from them and thankful to be locked up in my house.   Once clinics figured out how to function in a pandemic and secured payroll for their permanent staff, I quickly got scooped up again but I’ve limited my work days in part because I’m very strict with staying safe and healthy, and because I have a bit more YOLO than usual. I want to make sure I take the time to do the things I really love and need: spending quality time and taking care of the important people in my pod, taking the time to reach out to my family and friends across the world that I won’t get to physically visit for a long time, and contributing to maintaining trails for my local mountain bike association since they’re not allowed to have volunteer work parties. The pandemic has made self care more of a priority and I’m standing up for myself a lot more than I did before now that the stakes are so high.

What are your hobbies/passions outside of work?

Everything that has to do with the outdoors, but most notably hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, backcountry skiing, and international travel, often both together such as going home to Switzerland to hike in my beloved Alps (and see my family, of course.) My favorite way to spend my free time is volunteering with the avalanche education program with the Seattle Mountaineers and doing trail maintenance for the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.