Out of the Woods – Creepy Farm Call #1

In the spirit of Halloween, I was thinking back to some of the more creepy farm calls I’ve been on in the two years. I definitely place this one in the top 5, but certainly isn’t the scariest or eeriest story by far. Saving that story for a future post.


Last June, I was sent out on a very remote farm call…almost an hour into the middle of the woods. Our appointments in google calendar were also linked with Google maps, so that navigating to the next call was automatic. I rarely entered in or checked a destination address. I passed through a couple neighboring towns, and then through small “ghost towns” …old wooden buildings with the planking peeling away and paint long gone, old decrepid cars with all the tires flat. If listed, town population signs never sported a number over 300.

Cell service became intermittent, and then non-existent once I turned off the highway onto a paved road. After 15 minutes, the paved road turned to gravel, and after passing a ntional forest sign, I started passing foresty service roads. After 30 minutes, I still hadn’t passed a single house as I wound down through a valley along a wide, fast-paced river.

The appointment was for a feral, lame horse. The horse had already received 2 tubes of dorm gel prior to my arrival. I had tried to find this place before, but after an hour of searching, called it quits. We arranged for one of the owners to meet me today, the spot I quickly approached (a Y in the gravel road with a tree inbetween the forked paths). He waiting there in a weathered mid 80’s ford truck. He had already turned around to servce as the pilot car, and a plume of exhaust fumes serged up from where the exhaust pipe would’ve been.

We didn’t pass a single house, driveway or other sign of residence. Gated and overgrown logging roads intersected the gravel road, which wound deeper and deeper into what I presume, was still national foret land. The gravel road faded to dirt road, and as we came around a sharp corner, his truck suddenly disappeared from sight. I hit my breaks to see his exhaust plum leading my like an obnoxious bread crumb trail. He veered down a dirt path, certainly no road. An assortment of dust-laden vegetation crept far enough over the path to make it invisible. I remember thinking they didn’t have a mailbox, and that I was probably coming up on a squatter compound…but squatters or not, they had a horse that was severely lame.


The truck stopped at a widening of the dirt path, and then pulled away to park amongst an assortment of rusty, scrapped and stripped cars, trucks and vans. Dispersed beyond the cars, amongst heavy tree trunks with low lying branches, were 5 large tents. Picture safari-style hunting tents…aged, mossy, holed and sagging canvas between the frames. Beyond the tents, a small paddock was built with an assortment of scrap metal, poles, logs and other makeshift materials. The guy said nothing and disappeared into a tent. All the tents had ventilation through welded pipes, the canvas material cut to give the steaming pipes a wide bearth.

An older woman was standing with the horse, and motioned for me to come over. I got out the basic tote, head lamp and wandered through the brush to the coral. The horse’s hooves were overgrown to the point of making 6 inch long skis, with the toes almost curling back like elf shoes. With the horse sedated, I could complete my exam and figured the lameness was a result of the unmanaged toe length and laminitis. It was while I was discussing this with the owner that I motion caught my eye. From all directions in the woods, coming around and between massive tree trunks, people slowly emerged. Men and women, ranging from (my guess) early 30s to mid 60s, silently made their way out of the woods. Some of them didn’t seem to notice I was there, others shot furtive glances. One by one they disappeared into various tents. If any of them spoke a word, I certainly didn’t hear it.

My heart was racing at this point, and I felt vulnerable and exposed. The only thing I could think to say was that I was going to grab my phone from the truck (not that it had cell service or would do any good). I got to the cab and grabbed the only real defense weapon I had. It was a can of mace my friend had gotten me after I was attacked by a farm dog a couple months earlir. As I was returning, one of the flaps to the tent was flapped back. Inside, there were large burn-barrel with lids…5 or six with pipping going towards what I assume isthe main pipe coming out the top of the tent. I glanced to make sure the vet bed was closed, ie locked. It was.

As I finished discussing my recommendations, the various tatter-clothed people emerged from the tents one by one. They randomly accumulated around the bed of the vet truck, looking it over curiously. They were 5-10 feet away from the truck, inspecting it and ocassionally me. I confirmed no cell service, and never wanted a distress beacon so badly in my life.

The owner went to retrieve her checkbook while I settled into the truck. Like every time your heart is pounding, pulse bounding, adrenaline serging…minutes in panicked reality feel like hours. This situation, no different. I sat there, on the verge of fleeing but forcing myself to wait. No one said a word amongst the six or seven scraggly, barefoot men that lingered around the truck. Women arrived, check in hand, and and said the guy who brought me here was just turning his truck around to show me the way back.

$%@$ that, I thought. No people or cars were behind me, and all I could manage to say cooly through the cracked window was “I’m good.”

I didn’t know that little ford vet truck could go so fast in reverse, and I’ve certainly never driven in reverse that fast for that long in my life.


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Logistics Behind Ambulatory Work, Part II: Drive Time

I receive quite a few questions from ride alongs, job shadows, students and clients about the ambulatory component of work as a mobile equine vet. I decided to share some of my experiences and insight by answering some of the most common questions I get. In Part I, I discussed some of the logistics behind scheduling, navigating and billing for our practice.

The next series of questions I am frequently asked include:

  • How much time do you spend in the car on average per day?
  • What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place?
  • What do you do in the car all day?

 

Drive Time

Google Map’s timeline is an invaluable resource for tracking how much time we spending getting from point A to point B, tracking mileage, tracking the time spent at each farm call and overall time spent driving per day. All this data is arranged in a calendar mode, meaning I can pick any day of the month and retrace my route.
The season and whether or not I am on call are large factors in the amount of time I spend in the car. I went back and reviewed my timelines from different months to get an idea of variation between seasons.

Our slow season is November-March, so I chose to review the month of January. For the month of January, drive time was 2-3 hours per day with 2-3 farm calls (1-2 hours were spent at each farm call). My on-call days with emergencies increased the average number of hours to 4, with 1-2 farm calls per day. The average appointment time for these emergencies was 2-3 hours.

From March-June, business starts to amp up. For May, drive time per day averaged 4-5 hours with an average of 4 farm calls a day. On days with emergencies, drive time was 5 hours with 2-3 farm calls per day.

Our peak busy season is from the end of June to the beginning of September. When I reviewed my timeline data for July and August, my jaw dropped. I knew I spent a lot of time on the road…but was still shocked to find that the average amount of time I spent in the truck was 8 hours per day with 4-6 farm calls per day.

And the longest we ever spent driving in one day? 10 hours!! This was for a day with 4 farm calls appointments and 3 emergencies. And the longest drive I’ve made in one direction was 2.5 hours, from the northern part of the Realm to the western part of our Realm with closure of a major highway due to an accident.


Making the Most of It

When not in conversation or on the phone with clients, the first thing I do during the drive between barns is complete my medical records and invoices. This is, by far, the biggest advantage to having my assistant drive. At my previous job, when I did not have an assistant, I would have to do invoicing and notes at the end of the day…often times adding another 2-4 hours to my work day. Not only was this exhausting, but increased my errors on invoices and reduced the quality of my medical records.

Once medical records and invoices are done, other work-related tasks I do are review lab results, go over my follow-up list, and review the appointments for the next day. When that is all said and done, I move on to entertainment. I have a wide variety of music tastes, but spend enough time in the car and all types of music wear on you after awhile.

So, I discovered podcasts…a wide variety of podcasts that range from veterinary education, to psychology, crime, current events, controversial topics, history and so on. Some of my favorites include:

Favorite Podcasts from Pocketcast

Logistics behind Ambulatory Work

Occasionally, we have ride-alongs or people doing job shadows, usually students ranging from high school to vet school. For those considering a career in veterinary medicine or future ambulatory vets, it is an interactive, uncensored day-in-the-life experience. The types of questions I did not really expect to get were regarding commuting and driving. The questions I get asked most often include:

  • How big of an area do you serve? What are the logistics behind scheduling appointments? Who determines the route? How do you know how much to charge for a farm call?
  • How much time do you spend in the car on average per day? What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place? What do you do in the car all day?
  • Does getting car sick mean you can’t be an ambulatory vet?
  • Does the truck ever break down? Have you ever gotten in an accident with the work truck?

I’ve received these questions often enough that I decided to write a couple posts about this side of the profession from my personal experience.


The Realm

Our service area (which I refer to as the realm) is vast, one of the largest I’ve seen. From where our office is located, we service up to an hour and a half in every direction…meaning our call radius is 1.5 hours, not factoring in traffic. The realm ends up being a large part of the western side of our state. While the majority of our work is North, an emergency an hour South of our office could mean a 2.5 hour drive from one end of our range to the other. Most practices I’ve spent time with service a 40 minute radius around their hub.

As for navigating the realm? I have to give a shout out to navigation apps. All of this would be a lot more difficult without today’s smart phones, GPS etc. I consider myself very fortunate to practice in a time when this technology is easily available. Not afraid to admit that I cannot imagine the farm call experience before Google maps existed. For the vast majority of our navigation, we use Google maps and Waze, which do a great job 95% of the time.


Scheduling

Luckily, our front office staff are all locals with an excellent knowledge of the cities/towns and road system. Equally important is knowledge about traffic. The commute to a particular barn in the morning could be well over an hour, while the same route could take 30 minutes if its around lunch time.

Efficiency requires concise, well-planned routes, the front desk carries the heavy burden of scheduling. And they are phenomenal at avoiding the big scheduling mistakes, which off the time of my head are:

  • Return trips (same barn more than once in a day)
  • Same stops (different doctors to the same barn in a day)
  • To-and-fro (alternating near and far locations like North  South  North  South …vs. starting north and working south throughout the day)
  • Localizing (keeping all farms in a particular direction, vs having calls at complete opposite ends of the service radius)

I have full respect and appreciation for the skills of the front desk staff, because I dabbled in scheduling at my previous job and found it to be a pain-staking, hair-pulling mess.


The Financial Side

Minimizing drive time is essential, as our farm call fees (ranging from $80-140) over times barely cover the overhead and wages one way…not to mention if the next call is equally far at the other end of our range. Often times, the company actually loses money as the basic, rough example below shows:

Farm call 40 miles from office, 1 hour drive time

  • Farm call fee charged to client: $100
  • Gas: $10
  • Vehicle wear and tear, mileage, licensing, insurance: $25
  • Assistant’s time (company cost): $25
  • Doctor’s time (company cost): $60
  • Total cost to company for farm call (one direction): $120

Not a precise or perfect example, but easy to see why scheduling and routes are so important. And after all the effort is made into tactfully planning an efficient day, there comes an emergency call that changes it all…and even if the call is at the other side of the realm, traveling in peak traffic hours, those facts don’t register because the focus shifts to getting there safely and as soon as possible, so that we can do what we joined this profession to do- care for our equine patients and the clients attached to them.