Karla Lee is an associate professor in small animal surgery at the Royal Veterinary College. She has spent 70% of her career working as a clinical veterinary surgeon and 30% of her career conducting medical research to further our understanding of post-menopausal osteoporosis in women and to find an alternative treatment to liver transplantation in humans with liver failure.
How did you get into veterinary medicine?
I was 5 years old when David Attenborough’s TV programme Life on Earth was first broadcast. It was aired after my bedtime, but my mother got me and my sisters out of bed to watch it. I originally wanted to be David Attenborough, but then I decided I wanted to do more than observe the animals, I wanted to help them. And so, I decided to become a vet.
I spent hours in the local library after school and I was drawn to the career guides. I soon had a plan. I knew which subjects to choose for GCSEs and A levels, the grades required, which universities did veterinary medicine and what work experience and other extracurricular activities I needed to do to support my uni application. I went on a mission and planned to succeed... I’m not sure where the strength of my motivation came from, but my twin sister was on a similar mission to be a barrister, so we joined forces to succeed together.
What was the most pivotal moment in your career/what are you most proud of?
This has to be getting into Cambridge University to study Veterinary Medicine. My mother is part of the Windrush generation: this was an incredible achievement for her. Her pride was my happiness.
What does a normal working day look like for you?
Monday’s are my favourite days: I call them my ‘saving lives’ day. I lead the surgical team
responsible for taking over care of all the dogs and cats that have been admitted to the emergency service over the weekend that require surgery as part of their care. Some of these patients have already had surgery, but others will need surgery on the Monday. All of these patients have potentially life-threatening problems, so we can make a real difference to their outcome.
We start at 8am with clinical rounds, during which the weekend team tell the Monday teams about the cases in the hospital. At 8:30am I get together with the surgical team that I will be working with during the week, which includes one specialist surgeon in training, one junior vet and two or three clinical vet students. Patients are assigned to one vet and one student. I get to know the clinical vet students, hoping to inspire them into enjoying small animal surgery as much as I do.
At about 9am we start to check on all the patients. Before we start operating, we need to call all the owners to ensure that we fully understand the animal’s problems and the owner’s perspective, so that we can do what is best for the animal and the owner. On a busy day we will do 3 or 4 surgeries, as well as looking after all the post-surgical patients. At the end of the day the team does clinical rounds to ensure that all the patients have plans for care overnight. I’ll often catch up with a bit of paperwork after this and unwind a little from the day. And then before I go home, I’ll quickly check on all on the patients again and if I think that any owner would get a better night sleep if I gave them another telephone update, I’ll do this.
What advice would you give your 16-year old self?
Life is game. Absolutely play to win but seek out the fun and happiness in everything you do.
What one thing can a student hoping to become a small animal surgeon do today to get started?
Meet and do work experience with as many specialist small animal surgeons as possible before you qualify as a vet. In this way you can work out whether it’s the right choice for you, start networking to find possible future mentors and also decide on which environment you would most like to work in: private practice or a university hospital.
What do you love most about your job?
The cats and dogs without a doubt.
Throughout my career my research has focused on human medicine and my clinical work on surgery in dogs and cats. I have previously questioned which is the worthier pursuit: human medicine or veterinary medicine? I no longer need to ask myself this question. Every cat or dog is a best friend or a family member. To help an animal is to help a person too.
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