Blog – “Schnapps in Belgium” January-February 1982

By December 16, 2016Blog, Newsletter

The “clinical” program at the University of Missouri School veterinary school was somewhat unique. We spent 100% of the first two academic years in the classroom; the final two years were divided into 12 two-month “blocks”. Eight of these blocks were assigned . . . Small Animal Medicine, Anesthesia and Radiology, Small Animal Surgery, Large Animal Medicine & Surgery, etc. The remaining 4 blocks were “open”–each student could choose to take an additional block at the school—e.g. “Ophthalmology” or, a clinical block arranged (by the student) with a veterinary private practice.

I opted for external rotations; two blocks at the vet school, followed by one in the “real world” of private practice. That academic, then “hands-on” experience was an ideal way to for me to learn practical, clinical medicine. So, I spent two months working in small animal practices in Columbia, Missouri, Medford, Massachusetts, and Mendocino, California over those 2 years. To finish things off, I spent a block in my final semester at a mixed-animal practice in Herentals, Belgium! Recently (November, 2016) we welcomed an intern from the University of Missouri for a two-week stint @ WVH; their rotational program is unchanged from the time I attended school there . . . and still is (in my opinion) the best format for turning out clinically “ready” veterinarians.

How did I end up in Belgium? During my junior year of vet school, we had a “visiting professor” from Belgium; Kris Van Mol, DVM. During his time in Missouri, Kris made a general announcement that he would be happy to “put up” anyone from the University of Missouri vet school who happened to be visiting Belgium. I later wrote and asked him what he thought about having an extern around for two months . . . his immediate response was, “My house is your house as long as you are in Belgium”.

A few months later, fortified by a $500 Christmas present from my family, I hopped a flight to Heathrow in London, a ferry to Belgium, then a train to Herentals . . . where I met Dr.Van Mol. I couldn’t have asked for a better host!

Kris did some cattle nutrition research at the Veterinary School in Ghent; but spent most of his time running a 4-doctor veterinary practice in his home town east of Antwerp. I say “mixed animal” practice, but it was probably 90% farm animal at the time, almost all of that, dairy cows. Kris spent his 3 months in Missouri with the faculty in the companion animal department; he was building a new facility, and planning to expand the “small animal” portion of his veterinary practice. In the meantime, the practice in Herentals was very “James Herriott-like” . . . relatively small (80-100 cow) dairy practices peppered in the farmlands for about a 5-10 mile radius around his home.

I was moved into a bedroom—am pretty sure I took over one from the youngest of the 4 children—and spent the next two months enmeshed in their family life and spoiled and fed (best I have ever eaten in my life!) by Kris’ wife, Elise. My daily routine was to travel from farm to farm with Kris (occasionally, one of the other junior veterinarians in the practice), and observe the interactions with their clients and their animals. The clients were remarkably hard working families—no “breaks” when you are milking cows every 12 hours—and uniformly friendly and interested in the visiting American student.

They asked me many questions about life in the U.S. in general, and farming questions in particular. Unfortunately, Flemish is a difficult language to understand—Kris and the other vets all spoke good English and were my translators—and I had minimal background in farming . . . so, I was often unable to answer most of those specific questions. However, it was no problem finding other things to talk about.

Since I was new to the area, the traditional local winter libation to toast a visitor was “schnapps” (“Genever”, a gin-like local brew); in the summer, it would have been one of the world famous Belgian beers. Not much of a “hard liquor” drinker, it took me a few days to master the art of downing “shots” at each new farm we visited. Early on, after hitting 3 new farms one morning . . . I told Kris, “We’d better head home for lunch; another new farm this morning and you may have to carry me back to the truck!”

 

Schnapps shots in the mornings aside, my 2 months in Belgium proved to be a wonderful experience. Kris was an excellent, forward-looking veterinarian, and an ideal mentor. His “under construction” practice of 1982 now houses 7 veterinarians in various areas of specialty practice. We spent many hours driving and talking through the countryside of a pastoral Belgium; his thoughtful advice and entrepreneurial spirit proved to have a profound effect on my career pathway in the practice of veterinary medicine. Dr. Kris Van Mol passed away almost 15 years ago; I regret we never managed to cross paths again . . . what a guy!

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