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‘Really hard to let go’: Grimsby veterinarian easing into retirement after 32 years

Growing up around animals on a hobby farm, Michelle Cline already knew she wanted to be a veterinarian at just three years old.

Now with the initials ‘Dr.’ before her name, she’s reluctantly stepping back after a 32 year-long journey of love and compassion, caring for animals across the Atlantic, in the United States and here at home in Grimsby.

After spending six years of practising veterinary medicine between Michigan and England, Cline returned to Canada in 1993, and began working at Grimsby Animal Hospital in 1999.

Coming back home was “reverse culture shock,” she says — having spent most of her career up until then practising outside of Canada, after graduating in 1988 from the lauded Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph.

The time abroad (she travelled with her husband, John, as he earned an education in horticulture) stands out for her as she sits in a Muskoka chair behind the Grimsby hospital, recalling decades of memories.

“I was (working on) some zoo animals, monkeys, reptiles, as well as dogs and cats and pocket pets,” she says.

She brought back to Canada with her, a special interest in those “pocket pets” — small rodents like hamsters, rabbits, and guinea pigs (for which she has a particular affinity).

“I enjoy the relationship the client has with those pets, they are important too, and I think for a long time they were neglected a little bit — there wasn’t the veterinary care available to clients for them,” Cline says.

Advancements in veterinary medicine have come a long way, and now more complex procedures are being conducted on smaller animals. And with more complex procedures, strides have also been made in pain management and rehabilitation, leading to a better quality of life for animals living with ailments, says Cline.

She recalls a leg amputation she did on a hamster: “He was a tough little guy; he came through the surgery really well and he went on to live quite a while afterwards.”

“As a veterinarian, on a daily basis, we’re covering the grounds of treating and diagnosing medical conditions and also doing any surgeries that are required, also interacting with clientele, doing a lot of preventative care, a lot of puppy kitten work as well as older patients, so there’s a wide variety in what you do every day,” she says.

Cline has honed in her analytical side over the years, relying more on her intuition and experience, but it’s not just the animal’s suffering to worry about.

In the case of the hamster, Cline also mentions the bond that had formed between a young girl and the pet.

“There’s that kind of unconditional love that they give you, they have needs and you provide for them; you get that positive feeling from that, and they’re just total affection, total love really, but a different kind than human love,” she says of the bond between animals and humans.

For her, the two are inseparable.

“I guess I love people and I love pets too. Veterinary medicine gives me that combination where I can interact with people in that capacity which I just love,” she explains.

Truth be told, Cline isn’t keen about her “semi-retirement” and talking about it makes her uncomfortable. But the pandemic has dramatically changed some of what she loves most about her job.

“I like to practise in a very personal way, I like to focus on the client that’s in (the room) and that pet and not be pressured or stressed or time restricted,” she says. “It’s really hard to let go completely.”

So, she’s letting herself down slowly.

She’ll miss her co-workers and the community work through the hospital — raising awareness and funding for the Farley Foundation, which provides monetary support for those who struggle to pay for veterinary care.

Occupying her time isn’t going to be a challenge. Between playing saxophone in two bands — the Lincoln County Band & Jimmy Marando Swing Band — gardening, and weekending at the cottage, she still plans on fitting in some time at the hospital.

At home, it’s an empty nest with John (her three boys are now grown and moved out) but she’ll be seeing more of her “fur children” — an active Jack Russell terrier rescue and a former stray kitten, Tiger, who is now a grown 17-year-old.

While one door is slowly closing, another remains open in Cline’s heart should another animal be in need of the care and compassion that has, for so long, defined her work.

“It’s just about being able to serve, being able to provide. I think I really like to see a problem and solve the problem,” she says.

It’s just who she is.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week

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