An Interview with Jana Leontescu on following your dreams, by Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS

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Jana Leontescu

Jana Leontescu got to where she is today by her own merit. A dogged determination, a passion that couldn’t be put out and an internal drive to be the best she can be to serve the animals under her care. Her younger self would struggle to believe that she would be working in a lab in the UK, speaking English and helping to diagnose thousands of animals each yeah. A younger Jana had visions of a career in farm animal practice in her home country of Romania. So how did she end up at a destination so far from its origin?

“My first job after graduating was at a sheep farm. I used to check the lambs to see if they had survived – there was a lot of disease and not a lot of medicine. We were pretty isolated at the farm and it was hard. I handed in my resignation after there was a food shortage for the animals. I went to the farm manager to discuss it and found he was more invested in buying his new car than feeding his animals. I left after that, but struggled to find another job at a different farm.” And so, the envisaged farm animal career was cut short after just a month. Her next role was in small animals and posed its own difficult challenges. “I travelled with my husband to the south of Romania and started working in a small animal clinic. Shortly after I joined my boss opened his new hospital. It was kitted out with lots of amazing new equipment, and he advertised us as specialists, but the problem was, we weren’t.”

Rising to the challenge, with minimal senior support, Jana self-taught herself numerous techniques and discovered her love of the microscope. “We saw a lot of difficult cases. Due to the advertising, we ended up seeing cases that had already been seen by other vets, or very sick animals that were brought to us in desperation. All my experience happened in this clinic, from these cases. We had a brand-new ultrasound machine, but nobody knew really how to use it. So I started, I put the probe wherever I could – eyes, joints, abdomen hearts…. I used textbooks and Google and my confidence began to grow and grow.” She would confirm her findings in surgery or at postmortem where she would take as many samples as possible. “I loved microscopy, I would spend a long time looking down the microscope at this new world. We had a lot of cases of babesiosis and dirofilaria. So many dogs had it. It was easy to diagnose but not so easy to treat and I became very good at managing these cases.” Her passion for parasitology had begun, and due to it, helped advance other areas of her craft, “I would scan hearts just to look for dirofilaria, and then would start to notice dilation and hypertrophy” she laughed.

Almost three years passed in this clinic where parasitology formed a large part of her daily work. She began lung worm research, she assisted her boss with his PhD on babesiosis and she drew up her own wish list of parasites to identify. “I wanted to be able to diagnose leishmaniasis. Everyone in the UK thinks of Romania and thinks of leishmaniasis, yet for 3 years I worked there and never diagnosed a single case. I was so confident in one case, that I thought was leishmaniasis, but we lacked the funds for PCR, so I can’t say for sure!”

I asked her what prompted her move to the UK and found the answer almost romantic. “I had these textbooks that were published in the UK and they were so amazing. They described tests that we didn’t have access to in Romania and I just thought ‘I need to go there and learn these techniques’, I wanted to learn more and provide a better service to animals.” There was just one problem – Jana didn’t speak English. Her husband, who is also a vet, did and so he started working while Jana took a year to immerse herself in England and learn the language from books and YouTube. “I forced myself into learning it, going to the shops, talking to people. To begin with, once I started work it was hard but little by little I’m getting there.”

Clinical practice in the UK posed its own challenges as Jana began to work in a different culture and different business model. “In Romania the clinics are walk-ins. So you see people on a first come first served basis, or emergencies, and I often had several cases on the go at the same time, always working hard but with plenty of time with each case. I found the 10- and 15-minute consults here extremely difficult. I don’t like not working to time, but I also don’t like not doing my best and I found that 15 minutes just wasn’t enough to do everything that I wanted to do, so I found it very stressful. I worked in a few different practices, and through COVID it was especially tough. But what I have really found hard is the euthanasia. In Romania we didn’t do this as often, certainly not every day, we always tried to fix them or save them, but in the UK there is a different attitude to euthanasia and I find it very hard. Maybe I get too attached, I don’t know, but I found myself coming home very upset too often so I needed a change. And that was then NationWide Laboratories happened.”

Cementing a love of parasitology and microscopy, the job at NationWide Laboratories has been the start of a blossoming new career path for Jana. “It wasn’t pathology that first got my attention, I was thinking about parasites and microbiology! I like to find things under a microscope, I find it exciting. Working in a lab lets me use many of my skills but I don’t have to worry about the time constraints or euthanasia that bothered me in practice.” It seems almost written in the stars that she would end up in a lab, after the year of collecting samples in Romania where she had gone so far as to set up a wet lab in her garage. “I didn’t get to finish that study, but I’ve always been interested in parasitology.”

Jana is now on a pathway to become a clinical pathologist, “I like being a detective and finding the answer. In practice I always realised that diagnosing was more important than treatment, that you need to have the right diagnosis to be on the right treatment.”

A new experience for Jana is to be in a job which has structure and support, “I don’t need to use google anymore! If I have a question, I can ask one of the team who are always so helpful. I have complete trust in them, they are superstars. I feel like I am working with legends and one of the books I had on cytology, which I used a lot, I went on a CPD course with the author, and it was just amazing!”

I don’t need to use google anymore! If I have a question, I can ask one of the team who are always so helpful. I have complete trust in them, they are superstars.

Jana’s career journey is fascinating and a testament to her hard work and dedication. She learnt much of what she does by herself on the job under challenging circumstances. And now she is passing on that knowledge to younger colleagues. “I help the new techs that start working in the labs, and I have gone to Harper and Keele University to give some practical parasitology sessions.” Even more impressive given English is a recently learned language, “I do worry about my English. The team at NationWide Laboratories have asked me to present a webinar on parasites, but I’m not sure if my English is good enough.” Which seems almost laughable as she tells me this towards the end of an hour of perfectly fluent conversation.

I was interested in what life outside of work looks like for Jana, and wondered if she took time to wind down. “I like to craft and to paint. I’m not very good at it but I find it relaxing. I have a small gallery at home, the paintings aren’t perfect but they are mine and they are unique” she smiles. She explains that her mother and grandmother were both artistic, “they taught me to stitch and to crochet. I paint to relax, and to train my patience I stitch” she laughs. “And I like to read and watch detective stories or play puzzles, I guess that’s a bit like my job.”

“My husband works on Sundays, so those days are for me. Although not for much longer” and she happily tells me she is expecting her first child. I ask her what advice she will impart to her child, or what she would tell her younger self. “To allow yourself to make mistakes. I’m not good at this and work hard to accept it. All my life I couldn’t take the idea that you can make a mistake as a vet. I thought medicine should be perfect, that you have to do the best you can and that stresses me a lot. I’ve always felt so guilty if I make a mistake, so that’s probably the advice I would give – try to not pay attention to this, and that humans make mistakes when learning.”

She went on to tell me about a phrase an old professor of hers once told her “Every vet has their own cemetery, and the better the vet the bigger the cemetery, because at least they tried.” I get the impression she remembers each one of her mistakes, and I hope she can see in herself the wonderful clinician that is so obvious to me. I asked her colleague to describe Jana in one sentence and she said “She’s better than she thinks she is. She is very determined and very talented, but she doubts herself and there is no reason to, just go for it!”

What does ‘going for it’ look like for Jana? I asked her where she saw herself in ten years, “To have passed my clinical pathology exams and I would love to do some research in parasitology. There were so many parasites that were discovered a hundred years ago, but they weren’t considered pathogenic so we didn’t pay attention to them. But now the world is changing, the temperature is changing, there are tightening rules on our antiparasitic drugs, I’d love to know more about them and their behaviours now.”

She truly loves her work, the passion is clear to see. She feels lucky to be at NationWide Laboratories, but they are also lucky to have her.

NationWide Laboratories is committed to making a positive impact on animal health by offering innovative products, technology and laboratory services to your veterinary practice. They have been providing a comprehensive range of veterinary diagnostic services since 1983. Their expert teams can assist you in making decisions on relevant testing for companion, exotic and farm animals. They offer full interpretation in a range of testing areas including biochemistry, haematology, cytology, histopathology, endocrinology, microbiology, etc. Their sample collection service is powered by National Veterinary Services.



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