Soft tissue surgeon John says coronavirus crisis brought out the best in hospital’s emergency team

Professor John Williams is one of the UK’s leading experts in soft tissue surgery.

John, a graduate of Cambridge University, has worked extensively in small animal practice, is a former chair of the BSAVA’s Congress Committee and chief examiner for the RCVS Diploma in Surgery and is a respected CPD lecturer.

Seeking a fresh challenge, John joined Vets Now in 2016 as national surgical lead and is predominantly based in the company’s state-of-the-art hospital in Manchester, where he continues to carry out soft tissue surgery.

When the Covid-19 lockdown was introduced, everything changed in the veterinary professions due to the temporary closure of hundreds of daytime practices

With all hands to the pump, John, who’s been dealing with referral cases for 30 years, returned to working on the front line of emergency. Here he reveals just what it was like to roll up his sleeves at a time of national crisis.

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When I joined Vets Now it was the opportunity to be involved in setting up a new hospital in Manchester.

Starting the out-of-hours service and the referral hospital from scratch, having a completely clean sheet, was a challenge I felt I needed.

I’ve never been prepared to just settle down and I get easily bored on a plateau. So, being involved with Manchester as well as working to ensure consistently high standards across all our 24/7 sites was really stimulating.

But what I couldn’t have imagined was the very different challenge that lay ahead.

Pre-Covid, I’d combine the referral work with meetings and planning right across our hospitals and clinics, but that came to a shuddering halt as soon as lockdown came in. The guidance from the Royal College and BVA was that we could no longer see routine cases, only emergency work.

That’s where all our teams stepped up really well.

Image of surgery specialist John Williams for Vets Now careers article on working veterinary specialist jobs at Vets Now
Professor John Williams, national surgical lead at Vets Now's Manchester hospital, is one of the UK's leading experts in soft tissue surgery

In Manchester, for example, we have an out-of-hours team and a referral team, and we split the clinicians into two teams. One worked the front end of the week and the other the back end, swapping across at the weekend.

So, it meant all the vets had to see emergency cases as we stopped seeing those routine referral cases simply because so many local practices closed.

A lot of the cases they’d have seen as emergencies came directly to us.

And, as a referral surgeon I was now seeing vomiting patients, cats with abscesses, dogs with diarrhoea. Thankfully, having spent six years in first-opinion practice, I still had the skill set to deal with those cases.

Some of us might be a little bit rusty as to treatment options, but we all have that training and those skills.

You still do the thorough clinical examination and ask the right questions of the client. All of that really doesn’t change.

Yes, it was very different seeing non-surgical cases although, equally, there were surgeries to do within the hospital and I would carry out those procedures.

Image of specialist surgeon John Williams for Vets Now careers article on veterinary specialist jobs
John was involved in setting up the out-of-hours service and the referral hospital in Manchester from scratch

The other big change was no longer having direct contact with clients. Initially that was difficult, but I think that both clinicians and clients adapted really well to not having that face-to-face contact.

I really grew to enjoy being able to use the video call set-up we have. It lets you pick up on those non-verbal clues and I think it makes it easier to form a relationship when you see someone, even if they aren’t physically there.

So, while in Manchester we had to keep a distance for everyone’s safety, everyone was still very accepting of that way of working.

In my normal surgical work, I often have patients come to me with a specific set of symptoms and I expect that I’ll know the answer.

So, in going back on the front line, I found the challenge was coming to a diagnosis of the unknown.

But I guess that diagnostic challenge is what draws a lot of us to veterinary work in the first place.

Even though I may not have dealt with a diarrhoea case for a long time, the underlying premise for dealing with it really hasn’t changed in the last 30 years.

And in the cases where it was a bit more involved, I could always go and have a chat with a colleague here at Vets Now. So, if it looked like a really medical issue, you could talk through the most recent treatment or diagnostic options.

Image of Vets Now specialist surgeon John Williams for Vets Now careers article on veterinary specialist jobs
The diagnosis challenge is something John enjoyed while being back on the front line

In the early stages of lockdown some of the diagnostic options could be limited as a lot of external labs weren’t working either. But we had the ability to go back to other alternatives.

I found myself getting back into the swing of it very quickly.

And while I’m not saying it’s something I’d want to do for a massively long period of time, I have to admit that I did enjoy it.

Even as senior vets there were times we just had to get stuck in and do things we wouldn’t normally do.

It was a really interesting time and, as a smaller team, it brought us together really well.

Everyone was doing everything, and I think that helped us get through that part. The nurses, animal care assistants and vets all worked well together as a team.

We have an ethos of supporting each other and I really believe how we reacted showed Vets Now at its best.

We have an ethos of supporting each other and I really believe how we reacted showed Vets Now at its best.

John Williams National surgical lead, Vets Now Manchester

Being in a position to have an overview, I think we were very responsive to introducing change into our working practices.

And I must pay credit to our group of interns in Manchester who really stepped up. Their training was massively curtailed and instead of being, to an extent, hand-held, they were asked to step into doing more of what we did, and I was very proud of them.

Within a week of lockdown starting we were constantly busy seven days-a-week and I know were providing a vital service for pet owners at a critical time.

More referral work started coming in during July, but I didn’t fully step away from helping with the frontline emergency work for more than three months.

It was good to get back to my day job eventually but rolling my sleeves up, as it were, and getting stuck in again is definitely one of the most interesting, if unexpected, things I’ve had to do.

And I’m just glad I was able to roll the clock back a bit to play my part in what was a real team effort here during some quite extraordinary times.