Brown followed her calling to become vet
By Sue Tiffin
One moment in Grade 13 science class made a difference in the lives of countless animals, pet owners, a community and to the life of Dr. Laurie Brown for almost 40 years.
“Honestly, I was more directed toward medicine,” Brown said after momentarily stepping away from a steady stream of guests offering well wishes at a retirement party on Feb. 22 celebrating her career. “In Grade 13, I had already applied to Queen’s [University] to go into medicine, because I was good in sciences, and I was interested in medicine. And [teacher] Dave Mowat, in Grade 13 science, had everybody say what they want to be, and Kerry Riley, sitting behind me, put up her hand and said she was going to be a veterinarian. And there was just a moment. And it was like, oh, that’s what I need to be.”
Brown went to Queen’s for the first semester and transferred to the University of Guelph in the second semester.
“And that was it,” she said. “It was that sudden, it was that certain, and that was it. And that was right. That’s what I was meant to be. That’s just that moment, and then that’s it. And then all of this.”
Brown sweeps her arm toward the retirement party, gesturing to “all of this,” where her certification hangs on the wall, a crowd of visitors share smiles and tears recalling her work with their beloved pets, and photo boards depict her in moments throughout her 37-year career, often crouched down in the dirt under horses or with her hands never far from a variety of animals: a lamb, a dog, a pony.
Within weeks after returning post-graduation to Haliburton County, Brown was approached by then-reeve Murray Fearrey and the Municipality of Dysart, offering to co-sign a loan so she might set up a practice in Haliburton, which did not have a veterinarian in place at the time. (“Dr. Brown has indeed made any assistance I could have offered an encouragement to establish that business worthwhile,” Fearrey told the Echo.) Peter Curry and Rolly Letourneau contacted her, saying, “you design a clinic, we’ll build it,” remembered Brown, and her then-mother-in-law Barb Wood offered to work for her.
“So within six months, the door opened,” Brown said. “I wasn’t really in charge of the decision, it just all happened. Then it’s just been, I’ve had wonderful people come and work for me.”
At first, in April 1984 when Haliburton Veterinary Services opened, Brown and Wood were the sole employees, taking in an ever-expanding clientele. In 1986, Debbie Stinson (then Barrie) joined the clinic in a co-op placement, and after graduating college as a veterinary technician, stayed alongside Brown – who credited her in a speech later as being “a vital part of the growth of this clinic” – for 33 years. Brown said she didn’t ever advertise positions available, and that “the right people just seemed to show up at the right time,” many joining as volunteers or in trial or part-time roles only to end up staying for decades as employees and eventual close friends of Brown.
Janine McNab (then Richards) was one of those people, beginning as a volunteer and then joining as an X-ray technician. In a speech at a dinner held after the daytime retirement gathering, McNab said one of Brown’s legacies would be as a young businesswoman.
“One who met her share of resistance in the beginning days of her practice by being a female in a mostly male occupation,” she said. “One who, as we became young moms, built a playroom in the clinic where we could bring our kids if they weren’t well enough to go to daycare and we all pitched in to caring for that child and to the work of the day. One who never asked you to do something she wasn’t willing to do herself if she wasn’t tied up elsewhere.”
While navigating the challenges of owning a business, Brown also acquired physical injuries, even a broken pelvis once, along the way – one photo displayed at the retirement gathering shows a hoof-sized black and blue memory from a visit with a Belgian horse owned by Sinc Nesbitt.
“When he got her home she had a swollen lump, and he said, this is a champion mare, I need you to look at this,” said Brown. “So I got down, I had a look, I touched her hock, and she kicked me, just like that. And [Sinc] looked around and he said, ‘did she just kick you?’ And I said, I think she did. And it didn’t really hurt that much, but anyway, it turned into that, that’s a Belgian horse footprint. She never made a misstep, she never kicked me again, she was a treat to treat from then on. I think it was just, she was in a new place and pushed back. And that’s probably the least. That bruise did not leave a scar. I’ve got scars everywhere, but that was the least of my injuries.”
Brown can’t count the scratches, bites, kicks, even bruises to her arm because of a birthing animal’s uterine contractions, nor can she count the animals she has seen.
“I couldn’t begin to guess,” she said, making note of 100 cows at home, and hundreds of dogs through Winterdance Dogsled Tours and Haliburton Forest alone.
Hank DeBruin, of Winterdance, said Brown “has been with our family at some of our most joyful times and also our times of deepest sadness and anxiety,” noting that over years of working with top veterinarians from around the world during races, “while we have met a few that would be her equal, there are none that would be better than her.”
“Laurie always had time to explain issues/diagnosis in ways we and more importantly our children – no matter how young, could understand,” said DeBruin. “When the children were younger she would take the time to take them into the lab and let them look through her microscope or at X-rays to understand what she was telling them she saw. While her skills and expertise are second to none, so is her compassion for all animals. For 20 years she has treated every one of our pets with the utmost care and knows all our dogs, their family trees and histories as well as we do.”
McNab said Brown was so skilled, “she made what she did look easy,” and said her operating room was calm and organized even during emergencies.
Even as Brown answers questions requiring soul-searching contemplation about her career in the hallway during the retirement celebration, she multi-tasks, deftly jumping up to welcome guests or send them on their way with a personalized farewell, remembering details from one of the many conversations she had that day, and returning to her interrupted thought with ease.
“For those of you who don’t know and I myself knew her for years before it came up in conversation, she finished third in her class at Guelph; no easy feat considering it was then harder to get into veterinary medicine than it was to get into medical school,” said McNab in her speech. “She was a skilled surgeon and a brilliant clinician. I have assisted her in surgery when a phone call would come in and while continuing to operate she’d ask questions and be able to assess the concern, calculate dosages in her head and prescribe medication or next steps. I was always amazed at how her brain worked. As someone who’s worked in hospital operating rooms and under sterile conditions with numerous doctors and surgeons I’d never seen anything like it.”
Last November, when McNab’s dog Sully was nearing the end of his life, she called Brown for her support.
“Sully was in his favourite spot on a rug half-way under the spare bed and after she sedated him, we sat with him as the cats came and went and we waited for the sedation to take effect,” said McNab. “I felt very calm and peaceful with the whole unhappy circumstance. Laurie has that effect on difficult situations. So I asked if she’d like a cup of tea but she declined, saying her stomach was always a bit off at these times. In all the years I’ve known her, I didn’t know that, didn’t realize the cost to her of easing suffering in this way. Later, when I apologized for my lack of understanding she reassured me, humbly stating, ‘who else should do it, Janine? It’s my job,’ and once again her dedication, compassion and professionalism became a light in a dark time.”
Brown said the human connection with pets has stuck out over time. “The human-animal bond. It really is, it’s a remarkable thing. It kills you at times, but it’s really a remarkable thing,” she said.
Of all of the experiences – some she had time to try to prepare for and some that she didn’t – she recalls with teary eyes a time when she encountered an injured fox brought in through Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary.
“I think maybe the most startling reaction was a little fox that was brought in with his leg half gone,” said Brown. “That look in that face, the day we had to amputate his leg. I don’t know, there was just an intelligence or an acceptance or something, that best and worst moment. I just ... I don’t know, the soul of God, but that was the best and worst.”
Besides working as a resource for rescue agencies, Brown facilitated low-cost rabies clinics, lobbied against the introduction of GST which would make vet care more unaffordable for some of her clients, and helped house abandoned animals in need.
“Throughout her years, Laurie has self-sacrificed to be the practitioner that she wanted to be,” said Aimee Filion, the owner of Haliburton Veterinary Services now. “One who, at the end of the day, after all of the stress and life-deciding decisions, could be proud to see what she saw in the mirror. The one piece of advice that she gave me when I first started practicing was the right decision, the right choice, the right call was the one that let you sleep at night and let you look yourself in the eye. I have no doubt that Laurie lived by this rule every day of her life, and it shows to this very day.”
While she has taken time with her clients, she eventually decided the time was right to retire and did so last year (Filion said the retirement party came later after much convincing).
“I just think that the responsibility, it weighs on you,” said Brown of her decision to retire. “Being on-call. There are a lot of things I’m going to miss about practice. I’m not going to miss the walking into a room and saying, you know, your dog’s got bone cancer, your dog’s got lung cancer, your dog needs a $10,000 surgery. That stuff I will not miss. The well animal visits, the happy puppies and stuff, sure. But I won’t miss those other visits. The euthanasias. Listening for that last heart beat.”
Brown said retirement gives her the opportunity to focus on being a daughter to her 100-year-old mom, a mom to her daughter, and grandmother to her grandkids, but also acknowledged that in keeping farm animals she really isn’t that far from someone in need of help – even in the still-dark early morning hours before the retirement party.
“At home, this morning, you know, Casey jumps out of bed, 6 o’clock in the morning, there’s a heifer on the side of the hill trying to calf, upside down, he thinks she’s dead, we all run out, pull the calf out, the heifer’s all wobbling around, the calf is all swollen, you know, stomach tube, colostrum, all that kind of stuff, that’s been my day,” she said. “So am I retired? I don’t get paid, that’s all. I do the same stuff when I’m home. So I don’t miss ... don’t you miss all the animals? No. There is always someone at our house trying to die, that’s the way it is.”
And with a final goodbye to friends in the hallway, she turns and heads back to the room of people waiting to thank her.