Why I do what I do
The winds of change

I have been practicing veterinary medicine in northeast Nebraska for nearly 30 years. I started in a traditional mixed practice seeing dairy, beef, swine, sheep, goats, horses, dogs, and cats daily. Many of my clients were small diversified producers. I not only treated their sick animals, but together we celebrated, mourned, worried, debated, worshipped, worked, and played. Our relationships were personal and strong. In the early to mid-1990s, the farming community began to change rapidly. The small family farm evaporated, being replaced with larger, more specialized systems. Adapting, in 1997 I started a 100% swine practice focusing on sow-unit management and veterinary consultation. Over the years I evolved into a diagnostician, a human resource advisor, a standard-operating-procedure author, and an efficiency policeman. Practice, along with my approach, had changed dramatically. I found myself getting more and more impersonal, clinical, and detached – not the approach I had used as a young veterinarian. I slipped into this approach as more of my work was with employees and absentee owners. It took a little wind to wake me up.

June 16, 2014, was a hot humid day and I spent most of the day looking at pigs near Pilger, Nebraska, 40 miles south of where I live. An hour after I left, twin F4 tornadoes ripped through Pilger and the surrounding community. The tornados caused two deaths and over $20,000,000 in damages. The town was basically leveled. I knew several people who lost their homes, farms, and livestock.

June 17, 2014, was another hot humid day. I thought about heading south to Pilger to help clean up, but I was pretty busy. Besides, I had called a couple people to see if they needed help, but had no response to my messages. Later, I again thought about heading south and helping, but there were thistles in the pasture that needed spraying.

By 7:30 pm it was getting hazy and cloudy when suddenly lightning flashed to the west. I parked the sprayer and went into the house for an iced tea. From my west porch I was shocked to see a small thin tornado snaking from the sky down to the horizon. It appeared to be only a few miles northwest of our place. I quickly grabbed my wife and jumped in the car (exactly what you are NOT supposed to do). For the next 2-1/2 hours we watched as the tornado moved excruciatingly slowly in and out of the clouds. My business partner lives about a mile from us and our clinic is located on his place. I was calling him frequently to check on things. At 10:00 pm he reported that everything had moved away from his place. At 10:15 pm he called…. everything was gone except his house. The tornado had turned, heading straight through his place and several others in the neighborhood.

His house was damaged, but livable. Our clinic and everything else – records, medicine, computers, and office equipment – was gone. At daylight, people started showing up: friends, family, acquaintances, drug reps, clients, employees, neighbors, and strangers. For the next several days, literally hundreds of people helped us clean up, fed us, encouraged us, and helped move us to a temporary building. I am ashamed to admit, just the day before, I had rationalized why I didn’t need to help others in the exact same predicament. It was a very humbling and poignant moment for me. I was reminded of several things while going through this ordeal. The more obvious things were 1) review adequacy of insurance annually, and 2) back up your computers daily to an off-site spot (ie, cloud). The less obvious but much more important reminder was to review my approach to producers and employees during the tough times.

The loss of property is only a part of going through a challenging event like this. Overwhelming feelings of depression, frustration, and exhaustion also play a role. For me, the outpouring of unsolicited support helped to minimize those feelings.

On reflection, it occurred to me that my clients routinely go through catastrophic events such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, porcine epidemic diarrhea, production failures, fires, and other major misfortunes that are every bit as devastating as a tornado. As their veterinarian, I am frequently in a unique position to help deal with these situations. I may have done an adequate job responding to the practical details of these events, but I have been abysmal in helping with the depression, discouragement, and frustration that follow these crises. I have not gone that extra unsolicited mile to make that greater difference. Strangely, I am thankful that a little wind woke me up. I no longer want to be the one who calls and offers help. I want to be the one who shows up unannounced. Why do I do what I do? To make a real difference.

Brian Schantz, DVM