An interview with Kerry Freel on how curiosity can shape your life

by Fiona Farmer BVSc MRCVS

I could have spoken to Kerry all day. She is wickedly funny and bubbly, immensely intelligent without a hint of arrogance and exactly what I think of when I think of “a good vet”. My early years of dreaming to be a vet were in part shaped by the television series “Vets in Practice” and it turns out Kerry’s year at Glasgow Vet School were offered the chance to be the stars of a similar show, but Glasgow turned it down. And in turn, it was several TV shows and series that first sparked the dream of being a vet within Kerry.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballet dancer” she begins, “I even got offered a place at dance school but by that time I’d seen ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and the TV series ‘One by One’ and they had a zoo vet on that show, and I thought, wow I want to do that instead. So, I didn’t go to dance school, I went to high school and did normal qualifications, with aspirations of being a zoo vet in Africa.”

She didn’t end up in Africa, but did continue to dance, “As well as ballet I did Latin American, and this was before ‘Strictly’ made it cool. It was my sport, I guess. I don’t really dance now but I ferry my two daughters to their dance classes and competitions regularly.” It’s obvious she enjoys that her girls have picked up her dancing love, but she has not managed to pass on her veterinary aspirations to her children. “None of them want to be a vet. In fact, my son had to be taken out of class just at the mention of blood!” which is amusing when Kerry went onto explain that when moving her career into pathology, she wanted to be doing “the gory stuff, the guts and the organs and all that cool stuff!”

Pathology was not on the radar when Kerry was at university. “I loved surgery, that was my passion. I was also certain on my first job being a mixed job so I could use everything I’d learnt at vet school. I spent three years in mixed practice, proper mixed practice with cows, horses, pigs, cats, dogs and exotics. I was on a one in two rota and have to say the exhaustion of a busy on call was the biggest challenge.” Throughout our conversation it became startling clear that Kerry is a phenomenally busy person who likes it this way. She is always on the go, with little time outside of work and family commitments for much else. She commented that perhaps those gruelling first three years of employment had made her that way, and set her up for always being busy, but I suspect it is part of her DNA.  

During her time in mixed practice, Kerry discovered a love of surgery and began her surgical certificate. When she moved jobs to a small animal practice she was employed primarily as a small animal surgeon, and reflects on the immense learning this opportunity was. “When I talk to young vets now it seems they refer everything. That was never an option for us – our clients didn’t have the funds or insurance for it. So, from a learning perspective it was great as we got to do and try so much. We were always very upfront about it and had multiple, clear conversations with the owners explaining the risks, limitations and potential outcomes. When euthanasia was the only other option we were often asked to try, and we always did the very best we could.”

Kerry is clearly a high achieving exceptionally intelligent individual. She is incredibly humble and merely puts her drive to learn down to curiosity. “I’ve always wanted to know more, even at school and all the way though uni, I just wanted to know as much as I could!”

Intra operative image from a case of mesenteric volvulus during Kerry’s surgery certificate. In dogs this is a rare and often fatal twisting of the small bowel around the root of the mesentery.

On deciding pathology was her next route, she saw a job advertised for a clinical pathology job in London. The employer was one of her old lecturers from Glasgow so Kerry went to London for the weekend to spend some time watching what he did and ask lots of questions.

“From that weekend I knew I wanted to do anatomical pathology, not clinical pathology. I wanted to do stuff with guts and organs and dead bodies. It’s the gory stuff, the stuff I can get my hands into!”

She applied for the next residency that came up, which conveniently was in Scotland at The Dick Vet, and of course she was selected to join the programme. Kerry has since gone on to achieve her Dip RCPath and FRCPath, achievements she almost brushes off. “I don’t find exams stressful – you’re either good enough to pass or you’re not. And if you’re not you have to get good enough, it’s a bit like a driving test, just a marker of competency. I think because I’d already gone down the surgery route, I knew that to be considered competent I had to get the right qualifications. I sat my diploma at the end of my residency and I had to wait the then compulsory two years before sitting the FRCPath”.

The FRCPath is equivalent to a consultant level standard within the NHS. While some might consider studying for these qualifications a full-time role in itself, alongside her pathology work Kerry also spent those two years working as an ECC vet, lecturing at Glasgow University and working weekends at her friend’s practice performing surgeries. “I did say I like to be busy” she laughed.

“If I’m not working, I’m always out doing things. I gained my Level 2 Instructor qualification in Forest School when I was on maternity leave so I could help out my friend who ran the forest school classes at the local primary school. I never stop really, maybe it was that one in two rota or maybe it’s always been a part of me, as a child I can’t recall us sitting around watching TV and my parents were always on the go too.”

I was interested to know where Kerry saw herself going in the next ten years. “I’ll still be at NationWide Laboratories I think” she laughed. “I started 13 years ago and it’s gone in a flash.” For such an ambitious person I remarked that the job must be very varied and satisfying, “Oh definitely” she replied. “We get all species through, it’s not just dogs and cats – no gorillas sadly but I have performed a postmortem on a rhino. She was 35, lived at Edinburgh Zoo and had chronic osteoarthritis. We were photographing all her joints to compare OA in a captive environment versus the wild.” She is also excited for the future of pathology and veterinary medicine with the introduction of AI. A topic she has spoken about on the Webinar Vet. “The profession is always changing, nothing stops – pathology doesn’t stop, medicine doesn’t stop, it’s always moving forward so we’re onto the next challenge.” Kerry had recently returned from a congress in London where they had been discussing the use of AI in pathology. “AI won’t really change our job that much, you still need the vet to interpret the lesion and clinical history. AI will replace things like PCR testing and immunohistochemistry. In human medicine AI can provide a pathway for genomic medicine, identifying the types of tumours and the gene which has gone wrong. I see veterinary medicine heading in the same way, but it needs the proper investment first. We don’t identify tumours in the same way our medical colleagues do, so we can’t send AI off hunting for anything until we clarify what we are looking for.”

Kerry fully understands how her role sits alongside GP vets, and having worked on the frontline herself has huge empathy for her referring vets, “Sometimes it can be hard to convince owners to let you do a GA to obtain the sample, sometimes you sample the wrong thing, or don’t get enough. I’ve been there! AI will help with being able to obtain more information from a smaller sample size, which will be hugely beneficial to vets in practice.”

I asked her if she missed work in practice. “I miss cutting. Theatre was always my zen place; I don’t have much zen in my life anymore! But I do feel like I really help and that I am part of the veterinary team. I try to provide as much information as I possibly can.”

Kerry is brimming with knowledge and her joyful personality is well suited to discussing cases with vets. “I like chatting on the phone and talking about cases.” She has also presented webinars and lectured at Glasgow University, although is extremely modest about it. “I’m not really a big self-promotion person and I don’t really like being filmed as I can swear quite a lot! When I lectured there were no laptops or camera phones, nobody was recording it. Nowadays I would be terrified to stand in front of a group as its all being filmed and I’d just be thinking “don’t say that, Kerry!”

We got onto talking about Vet School and had a happy time reminiscing our times there, and I couldn’t help but think how much fun it would have been to have been in the same year group as her. “I have friends who work in the Uni, and they tell me how stressed the students are now and how much pressure is on them. I wish I could turn back time for them so they could experience vet school like we did.” I was fascinated about the fact her year could have been on the TV show ‘Vets in Practice’. “We turned it down” she said with a smile, “They wanted full access to us in our flats and nights out and let’s just say we knew our year group quite well, so we chose not to agree to be filmed with all that! And I think it was the right thing to do as I don’t think Trude and the rest of them ever really lived all that down!

Kerry is living life at 100mph balancing work, family and continued learning and seems entirely content and happy doing so. I wondered what her younger self would think if she were to see her now? “I think she would think I’m absolutely crazy! Young Kerry was never getting married or having kids and she was going to be a zoo vet and go live in Africa, so none of that happened! But this is the way life takes you, you might have a plan but there’s no point having a strict plan as life doesn’t go like that and you just have to roll with the punches. The advice I would go back and give my younger self is to just be yourself and do what you’re doing. Do what you want to do, and you’ll end up on the right path.

I finished the interview with my usual question – ‘can you describe yourself in one sentence?’ It only took her a second before replying “Hmmm, ok, a feisty Scottish woman. That’s all I’d say.” I laughed asking how that differentiates her from the rest of the Scottish women and her response, “Us Scottish women are all the same!” I would have to disagree, I can’t image there is anyone quite the same as Kerry, what a wonderful blend of fun, brains, drive, silliness and compassion.

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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