Unreal Veterinary Careers – An Interview with Dr Samantha Phelan BVSc (Hons) – Veterinarian at Roper Gulf Regional Council

Introduction by Emma:

I met Dr Samantha Phelan around 10 years ago in Darwin in the hot, humid Northern Territory build-up. Memorably this kind and busy vet-mum welcomed me to their home for dinner amongst the rest of the mid-week scramble that all parents are well aware of!

We had a great night – drank wine, laughed, shared a traditional local dinner and dare I say the Canberran (me) sweltered in the NT night! At that time (and ever since) it struck me that there are people of amazing calibre tucked out of the limelight – quietly doing work the hard work that touches and improves so many lives and just getting on with the job. To that point in my career I was unaware of the need that existed in indigenous communities around animal management but ever since I have been fascinated by (and support where I can) the work of dog programs.

I have followed Samantha’s career and her publications (below) and at Veterinarycareers.com.au we are currently advertising a role to work alongside Sam for the Roper Gulf Council – so it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Dr Samantha Phelan…’Welcome Sam – may I ask… What have been the major transitions in your career path?

Sam (A): The night before my graduation in 1994, I was offered a job with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries to work on the cotton residue contamination of drought-affected cattle in the Narrabri region. This provided me with interesting insight into the Government sector, international trade relations and chemical residue work.  As we were taking fat samples from cattle, it also got me somewhat familiar with scalpels and needles drivers – as I wasn’t a natural surgeon, this was a valuable training ground.

In 1995, I took some time off and travelled to Gove in the Northern Territory to do my first shaky speys, mentored by a friend who was working there. During that long wet season, I read a PhD about Indigenous community dog health programs. I had always had an interest in public health in developing countries and had travelled extensively, but I had my own pets and could not travel for extended periods overseas easily. Once I read the PhD, I realised similar opportunities for public health work existed in remote Indigenous communities in Australia. I immediately knew I wanted to do that  work, but I needed sound clinical skills before I could be of real benefit in these extremely remote areas.

I returned to the Central Coast of NSW and I worked for two years in busy routine mixed practice at Ourimbah Vet Hospital. The high caseload and quality of the supervision meant that my clinical skills evolved rapidly.

Photo: Northern Territory Sunset 

I then travelled around Australia, and like many I had run out of money by Darwin.  So I worked in mixed practice and waited for the doors to open. I met and worked with Stephen Cutter, who was already doing remote community work.  I then tendered for work in the greater Katherine region. I ran my own business doing remote animal health programs from 1998 until 2003. During this time, I met my husband and passed the business on when it came time to have my first child.

I was a stay-at-home mum for 10 years as I raised my three daughters, home schooling them for much of it. In this time, I served on the AMRRIC board and collaborated with Environmental Health departments nationally to write the educational manual Dog Health Programs in Indigenous Communities, an Environmental Health Practitioners Guide. I also wrote Conducting Dog Health Programs, a Veterinary Guide for AMRRIC.

In 2012, I returned to locum work in Darwin and refreshed my clinical skills. When the offer to develop an in-house veterinary model for Roper Gulf Regional Council appeared in late 2016, I jumped at the chance. I see working within the Council has the potential to broaden the educational and environmental health roles of the position. This has the potential to create long-term change in both human and animal health in these regions and I am excited to further develop the program over the next few years.

Photo: Delivering dectomax sandwiches to dogs at Barunga. 

Sam and Javin the Animal Management Assistant in Barunga NT.

  1. What has inspired you throughout your career (and has it always been the same)?

A: The drive behind my work has always been the same: I love animals, I love people and their stories, and I love this big country of ours.

I love observing the human-animal bond. As a university student, I presented on pets as therapy, and to this day I see how good quality animal contact can improve people’s physical and mental health. Indigenous peoples in Australia have been subjected to a lot of trauma in regards to animal management, with large-scale forced dog culls being common place in the Northern Territory until 20 years ago. The work vets do in this field prevents the need for mass culling, has significantly reduced canines’ scabies prevalence and has a huge and beneficial effect on the community’s happiness. I love to be able to contribute to people’s overall health by making veterinary care accessible though the work we do.

  1. What has been a major highlight of your career?

A: I don’t really have a single career highlight. The daily interactions of my work create a series of small highlights – stories shared, laughter and the development of relationships and trust all create these highlights, whether that be in a remote community, at smoko by a cattle crush or in suburban practice.

Photo: Sam undertaking dog health checks in community

accompanied by Kaylene Runyu, Animal Management

Assistant and Linda Bradbury an AMRRIC Veterinary Volunteer.

  1. What advice would you provide a younger you?

A: The cynic in me says “Do medicine, it pays so much better!” But the other part of me says “Trust that if you hold your vision, whatever work you do is preparation for that vision, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.” Then, when the right door opens, you will recognise it and be ready to walk through it – and make sure you take time to smell the roses along the way.

  1. What do you see as future opportunities for the veterinary profession?

A: Increasing human population and climatic shifts are placing pressure on animals, both wild and farmed, globally. I think these factors will put the spotlight on the veterinary profession, in regard to species protection, feeding the human population and preventing transmission of emerging zoonotic diseases.  I believe as a profession we can provide a scientific bridge between animals, humans and the environment and thereby contribute positively to the conservation of this beautiful planet.

Emma: Thanks very much for your time Sam ~ we look forward to hearing future updates & if people are interested in this type of work (or know someone who is) please check out the Junior Veterinarian, Roper Gulf Regional Council role currently being advertised here.


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