Lincolnshire vet Julian Earl was forced to retire from practice after a cycle-race accident in August 2012 that left him with horrific head injuries. While he may no longer wield a scalpel, he can still spin a yarn, as Cows in Trees, his book of veterinary anecdotes, confirms. He can also turn a bicycle wheel and is back in the saddle, enjoying the sport that was so nearly the death of him.
COULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I was born and bred in Leeds, growing up on the very edge of the city. I have one sister who is a teacher and is still there. There are no veterinary or farming links in the family but as a child I was besotted with our pets, including Jet, the huge wolfhound cross that I mention at the beginning of my book. From early childhood, I was also a passionate conservationist, going every Saturday morning to the Panda Club, the WWF group for youngsters. Indeed, I was interested in a job working for the International Whaling Commission after I graduated from Liverpool in 1981 but decided in the end to take up a position as an assistant in Preston.
AND AFTER THAT?
As a student, I had really enjoyed seeing farm practice in North Yorkshire and decided that mixed practice was what I wanted to do. At the Preston practice I was doing 90% companion animal work and so after a while I moved on. At my next job in Burnley, it was 50:50 farm and companion animal in a part of the world that I grew to love. After about five years I was looking for a partnership and took a job at the Banovallum practice in Horncastle in Lincolnshire. I had visited the town for a Sheep Veterinary Society meeting a few years earlier and rather liked it. It was in Horncastle that I later met Annika, the lovely Swedish nurse who would become my wife in 1991.
SO YOU STAYED?
I moved to Horncastle in 1989 and somehow convinced the partners to accept me into the partnership two years later. I became the sole owner of the practice in 2008. It is a long established five-person practice, providing services to farmer clients over a large area. One of my predecessors there helped pioneer the development of cattle-embryo transfer work in the UK.
BUT THEN IN 2012 YOU HAD AN ACCIDENT – WHAT HAPPENED?
I have always been a keen cyclist and was competing in an event with my local club, the Alford Wheelers. I have no recollection of the accident at all, nor the following weeks until I awoke from an induced coma. I was in bunch of about 80–85 riders at about 30 mph on a straight piece of familiar local road when I crashed. The only explanation that my front wheel must have clipped the back wheel of the rider in front and down I went. Five metres further along, I would have landed on grass and mud, not on a concrete kerbstone at a farm entrance. As it was, I received a basal skull fracture, multiple brain haemorrhages, a fractured shoulder, five broken ribs and a punctured lung, so my wife, Annika, was told I was unlikely to survive, but we told the consultant that I was too stubborn to die!
HOW WAS THE RECOVERY?
The accident happened on August and I was in hospital until the following January. Then in November 2013, 10 months after discharge, I began suffering severe spinal pain. An MRI scan revealed four vertebral fractures secondary to spinal osteoporosis, having lazed around in hospital beds for four months. Vertebroplasty sorted out the fractures – a mixture of medical superglue and Polyfilla was injected into the crumbling vertebrae and the pain I’d had for several months was gone in a few hours.
SO YOU WERE UNABLE TO WORK FOR A LONG TIME?
Even after the treatment, it was impossible to go back to work because I was unable to stand unaided and you are not allowed to drive for a year after a head injury. A neighbouring practice approached me to sell up, so I did. At least that meant the burden of managing the practice was no longer mine.
HOW DID YOU START WRITING THE BOOK?
In the 1990s I had given talks to the Horncastle Young Farmers’ Club and then the local Women’s Institute. It was these anecdotes that I have collected together, plus a few others for the book. All of the tales in the book are true. After the accident, I found my old notes and with Annika’s encouragement, I converted them into a manuscript. Those nice people at Quiller Publishing thought my writing had potential and decided to publish it. I found the process of writing therapeutic as I was able to laugh at my memories – I hope that others reading the book will do so too.
WILL THERE BE A SEQUEL?
I have a number of anecdotes that I have not used in the book but to produce a sequel I would have to dredge deep in my long-term memory banks because I don’t want to make stories up. But I do have another plan. I taught myself Swedish a few years back and one idea is to translate the book into that language. We will have to wait and see.
YOU ARE NOT DOING ANY CLINICAL WORK NOW BUT ARE STILL ACTIVE IN THE PROFESSION?
I have averaged 100 hours of CPD a year for the past 30 years and will continue with that because I want to keep my brain working. I am also still involved with the Sheep Veterinary Society. Way back in the 1980s, I was ‘volunteered’ by the late Andrew Madel to be its transport representative and studied the science around sheep transport in some depth. That led to my taking the RCVS certificate in welfare in 1998. I had gained a certificate in sheep health and production 10 years earlier. I have kept this going and was awarded a certificate in advance practice (sheep and welfare) last October. I am also involved a little in training new graduates. I developed a ‘helpful hints’ presentation, which summarizes much of the knowledge that I wasn’t taught at university and had to find out the hard way.
SO YOU ARE BACK ON YOUR BIKE?
Due to my neurological deficits, I have had adaptations to my bike to assist control and I train on the closed and dedicated para-cycling circuits at Nottingham and York organized by that superb organisation British Cycling. My very understanding wife drives me there each month. Also I have enrolled with a professional cycling coach because I still want to be the best I can be. I had to abandon my first two events on safety grounds due to my neurologically weak left hand and the risks of riding on bumpy or bad road surfaces. I have decided broken bones hurt too much and they do nothing for improving one’s fitness. I still have unfinished business with cycling so I need to avoid further trauma. Or worse, it might damage my bike if I crash again. My neurosurgeon is the wonderful Gerry O’Reilly at Hull. I made him laugh by saying it was going to take more than the little matter of a fractured skull to curb my competitive instincts. He just smiled and said: “Little matter of a fracture? People don’t survive your injuries; you should be dead, man!”
This article was originally published in the BSAVA's November 2016 Companion issue.