Animal doctor's life never boring
Liberal Veterinarian always on call
by Rachel Coleman
Veterinarian Dick Herbel heads to the exam room to take a look at a pet cat whose owner is concerned about the animal's loss of appetite and thinning hair. It's a Thursday morning, and the owner of Kansas Avenue Veterinary Clinic in Liberal is rapidly approaching the 70-hour mark for time worked on the average week.
"This is not your regular 40-hour kind of job," Herbel said. "A lot of it revolves around emergencies and walk-in patients. It's never boring. Every day, you learn something about people, animals, medicine."
This particular week is different: Herbel plans to take the rare weekend off to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with wife, Pensie.
"She's been as much a part of the practice as me," he said. "Going to veterinary school when you're already married, with two children is not something I would recommend. But I have a good wife, and she made it work."
Herbel set his course early, when he was just a sophomore in high school.
"I was raised on a family farm southwest of Hooker, Okla, where my dad farmed with a couple of my uncles, and, for a while, my grandparents," he said. "We had chickens and guineas and turkeys. Pigs. We had horses. We had a small feed lot."
As a country boy, Herbel helped with all aspects of farm work.
"Like farmers today, we always did as much as we could to doctor our animals before we took them to the veterinarian. We pulled calves, treated, vaccinated, castrated, dehorned … we did it all," he recalled. As a member of Future Farmers of America, Herbel was on course to follow the family tradition, until one day when his father took him aside.
"He said, 'Son, I don't know if there's going to be enough on this farm for you to survive. So think you should be a veterinarian,'" Herbel said.
The notion was entirely new to the kid who'd just finished raising 42 sows for an FFA project. But he took his father's advice to heart.
"From that time on, I just set that as my goal," he said. After college at Panhandle State University in Goodwell, Herbel went on to veterinary school at Stillwater.
"It was like night and day, compared to undergraduate work," he said. "Now, school was like a job. you get up and go to class from 9 to 5, then you go home, see your family, make a pot of coffee and stay up to study until one or two in the morning. Then you do it all again." The experience, "a lot of sweat and blood," resulted in the degree, which landed the young vet a job on Padre Island, near Corpus Christi, Texas.
"I went to work at a large practice that was mostly horses and small animals. It was pretty impressive — the owner had invested in the stock market, where he made a lot of money from coffee, so he had a coffee-colored Mercedes, and he'd practice out of the trunk of that car," he said. The job was about as glamorous as veterinary science can be: Herbel helped care for Wayne Newton's herd of nearly 100 Arabian horses, as well as other famous-bloodline animals insured by Lloyd's of London.
"It was like a fairy-book thing," he said. "I got along real good with the people there, and worked for 10 years in that practice."
But home in the Southwest — as well as the grandparents of the couple's three children — called to the Herbels. In 1979, when they heard of an opportunity in Liberal, they left the Gulf of Mexico for home.
"We came in a U-Haul truck and a car, with three kids and two dogs, and moved into an apartment," Herbel said. After a few years working with Drs. Collins and Buck, Herbel bought the practice, and set up shop in a renovated house on Kansas Avenue.
"We bought it because it was the only place on Main Street for sale," he said. Eight years ago, the Herbels purchased another building one lot north of the small frame house that had served well for more than two decades.
"This was a bank once, and then it was a utility company office; I guess they didn't know when they built it that they were actually constructing an animal hospital," Herbel said. "It's worked very well for us."
Though his practice in Texas had focused mostly on equine medicine — horses — Herbel quickly learned that as a solo practitioner in Southwest Kansas, he would have to make a choice between large and small animals.
"You're limited on time," he said. "It had been my intention to have a mixed practice, but it became apparent that I couldn't be away from the office for very long. If you're out in the country, with an hour or more of drive time, people with walk-in situations can't wait. You never know what will be coming through the door."
It's that element of the unexpected that keeps Herbel satisfied with his vocation.
"If I had to sort mail every day, that would be boring. Any kind of repetitive work would not be good for me, but being a veterinarian means you have to be a multi-task kind of person," he said. "We do dentistry, surgery, X-rays, wellness, preventative medicine, vaccinations, pinning broken bones … we do all kinds of things people don't even realize."
One group that sees the interior story of veterinary medicine, though, is the interns who complete preceptorships at the Kansas Avenue Animal Hospital. Herbel likes to encourage students from K-State or OSU through the two- to six-week sessions.
"They get a lot of good experience here," he said. "One young woman performed more than 30 surgeries this spring for the Angels for Animals rescue service. It was great opportunity for her."
At present, Herbel said, there's a shortage of large-animal veterinarians entering the practice, which is not surprising in light of the fact that 70 percent of the vets completing school are women. While women are perfectly capable of doctoring cattle and horses, the work often places grueling physical demands on the vet, and can be dangerous. Herbel thinks the skewed balance of male-female veterinarians is a result of the changes in U.S. agriculture.
"A lot of the small farms and ag-oriented families just aren't there anymore," he said. "There aren't boys growing up on farms, and they don't pursue veterinary medicine. In one or two generations, we are going to see a terrible shortage of veterinarians."
That should concern even city-dwellers, because veterinarians are responsible for milk, for meat, for eggs — "a lot of our food supply," Herbel pointed out. "They work in the packing houses and feedlots and as food inspectors. There are more animals in Southwest Kansas than there are people, and that affects the food supply in the entire country."
Such long-term concerns don't occupy the forefront of Herbel's mind when he closes shop for the day and heads home.
"I go out to the yard with my miniature dachshund, Minnie, and we water the garden and we do what we're supposed to," he said. "When my father told me to become a veterinarian, I didn't really think twice about it. That's been more than 30 years ago, and it doesn't get old. It's a lifelong commitment."