Christina Bowles, DVM, owner of Shaver Road Animal Hospital in Portage, Michigan, started her veterinary career working as a veterinarian in a clinic that offered 24-hour emergency care..
These days her focus is on finding balance between work and life—most notably life with her husband, their two boys, and the family’s pets including Tugger the dog, Bobber the cat, and a guinea pig named Popcorn.
The Voice of the Vet™ caught up with Dr. Bowles one morning just before Shaver Road opened its doors for the day
Describe your journey from working in 24-hour care to becoming a practice owner.
I loved working on call and did it for a number of years—until I had my first son. During the last weeks of my maternity leave, I thought a lot about life and my veterinary career. I imagined settling my son into his crib after 3 a.m. feeding as I rushed out the door for an ER call. When I envisioned that hectic schedule, emergency medicine quickly lost its luster. I knew I had to find a better way to blend my new family priorities with my profession.
Thankfully, I found the team at Shaver Road Animal Hospital. I started with the express purpose of purchasing the hospital in about 10 years and was lucky to find a boss who was extremely understanding of family/career balance in the interim. Despite our best-laid plans, circumstances changed, and I purchased the practice in 2012, just seven years after joining the practice.
Shaver Road is now home to two veterinarians and eight full-time staff members. This summer we’ll be adding a third veterinarian, which is another exciting step for the practice.
From your perspective, what do you think makes a healthy veterinarian?
Oh, it’s all about balance. It goes back to my own life and balancing that new baby with the on-call requirements. You really have to develop a good sense of what’s important to you and make sure to give the appropriate time and attention to your priorities. I learned there are some details in life you have to let go of or you’re not going to be healthy or happy.
As an example? Well just looking around my office, there’s paperwork to finish, journals I need to read, probably a dozen other things piled up. As a child and young adult, I was really organized; everything had to be in its place and finished ahead of time. Now I know it’s okay if everything isn’t in its perfect place all the time—so long as I can still find it!
Another example is juggling my family’s plethora of activities. Do I really need to be the one that gets my boys to ALL of their practices? Of course not! For me, it comes back to balancing priorities—my kids are important and my patients are important. When I am with my boys, it’s all about them! They have all of my attention and I’m their number one fan. When I’m at the hospital my patients come first—I handle them as I would my own pets. I try not to let those two big aspects of my life overwhelm one another.
When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian?
I first knew when I was five years old. We adopted a mixed Newfoundland-Lab puppy named Midnight when I started kindergarten. While still a puppy, she swallowed a sock or rag that we had given her as a toy. The fabric unraveled and cut into her GI tract. Within days, we had a very sick puppy on our hands and eventually had to euthanize her. I was devastated. I still get tears in my eyes just talking about her.
Afterwards, my parents took me to talk to our veterinarian and she explained the dangers of such toys. We had no idea we were putting our dog at risk. From that moment, I wanted to be a person who could help animals and “their people.” I really believe that through education we can have a huge impact on each human-animal bond. I’m still thankful Midnight’s vet took the time to talk to a sad little girl.
Fast forward 13 years and I was working hard to get my three years of pre-requisites as an undergrad at Purdue University. I then entered straight into the University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, graduating with my DVM in 2001.
What do you wish you’d known before vet school?
I think it takes some selflessness to be a private practitioner. I originally had a different intent when it came to my vet career: get my DVM followed by a PhD and work in research. But I quickly realized I didn’t have a passion for day-to-day research. I was more interested in how healthy and happy our little test subjects were!
For me it made perfect sense to focus on small-animal medicine. Working in the small animal hospital at Purdue really prepared me for those puzzling cases, those late nights, the unpredictability of your days. It wasn’t until after graduation that I really learned about the emotional toll of this profession. In school, you know you’re going to sacrifice your personal time, but you don’t often experience the emotional sacrifice. In private practice you give so much of yourself emotionally to your patients and their owners.
People go into veterinary medicine thinking it’s all science. But that personal interaction with your clients is just as important, if not more so. The blend of science and empathy makes this field both challenging and rewarding.
What has been your biggest surprise about being a vet?
My biggest (and most pleasant) surprise is the number of opportunities we have to serve our community. For example, a local charity sends backpacks of food home with young children each Friday so they have something to eat over the weekend. We encourage donations from our community and match each human food donation with a pound of pet food for a local animal rescue. Last year, our clinic was the largest donor of human and animal food to each respective charity.
Ownership has also provided the opportunity to sponsor and coach sports teams, sponsor fitness events, work with local animal rescues on education and population control, and mentor students who want to enter veterinary medicine. The list is endless!
What’s the funniest pet name you’ve ever encountered?
A dog named “Eaton.” We thought that was clever—giving the dog a “fancy” name. Then we saw his AKC registered name: “Eatin’ Bones.” So this dog we originally pictured as a snooty socialite turned out to be a goofball with an appetite for destruction!
Can you tell us about the craziest emergency case you’ve ever treated?
It wasn’t a medical emergency per say, rather an out-of-the-ordinary house call. I went to a woman’s home who wanted to euthanize her dog, who was dying of kidney failure, to end her suffering. This was around 10 or 11 p.m. during a heavy thunderstorm.
She was an older woman and her dog weighed perhaps 45-50 pounds. I sat with her (and the dog) during the last moments of her pet’s life. As I was packing up, she told me she didn’t have family nearby and asked if I could help bury her dog in the backyard that very night.
So there I was at midnight, in the backyard of this woman’s home, shovel in hand thinking, “I can’t believe I’m out here in a thunderstorm in a stranger’s backyard! What might the neighbors think if they see me digging back here!?” But that’s the level of service and compassion I want to provide my clients. She needed someone to be there for her and I was proud to be the one to help.
What wisdom do you want to pass on to future veterinarians?
I would pass on the same sentiment to any young adult starting out in any career: make sure you have a passion for it. Whether you volunteer or work, do it with passion. Put your whole self into it. If you feel you can’t do that, it’s not the right path for you.
Also recognize that what interests you in the beginning may change down the road. I’m a great example of a meandering career path. I did some early work in zoological medicine and research before finding I really craved the personal human-animal bond. Once I decided to become a small animal practitioner, I didn’t see myself owning a vet practice. I was happy working for someone else; my work was very fulfilling. Then I started to see the impact a practice owner could have on a hospital’s culture, the community the hospital serves, and especially on family life. My goals and interests changed again and I prepared for life as a small business owner.
That’s what is great about being a veterinarian—there’s really something for everyone. You just have to be willing to grow, change and adjust.