Faythe Vaughan

In 1977, I was 17, Daddy broke the news to me that he would leave clinical surgery and medicine to accept a desk job — in the dean’s office. I thought he’d taken leave of his senses. His move indoors was about as understandable to me as if Mozart started selling pianos. 

At the time, Tom Vaughan was a virtuoso surgeon, an inspiring teacher and a prolific writer of scientific works, including textbooks. He was a captivating lecturer. He was, essentially, a god, at least in my eyes. 

He courted his clients — who wouldn’t be charmed by a doctor who treated them with respect and listened to them describe their horse’s illness? Even when I was nine years old, my father would introduce me to his clients and advise me to hearken to their input. I just thought it was storytelling and that he already had a diagnosis. But he was smarter than that. He knew that the client would generally tell him the answer if he just paid attention. A careful physical exam would fill in the gaps. Tests were a last resort. I’m not even sure they had any back then. 

When he strode through the campus, scores of students trotted along in his wake, trying to catch up to wherever he was going and whatever he was saying — they didn’t want to miss a word. How many teachers can boast of such attention? 

On occasion, when he passed a horse who was impatiently dragging a crew of green-clad foot soldiers around the parking lot behind a trailer, he’d digress momentarily, convince it to get on board and keep on trucking to his next appointment without a break in instruction or failing to pick up a bit of trash off the lawn. I’ll have to say, I believe my mother would agree, my father’s litter collection was more compulsion than good deed. I share the habit and admittedly pick up trash because I can’t not. His mother also picked up trash and tossed it into the garbage with her house keys, so maybe it’s in our genes. 

Now I wonder, what was so captivating? I believe people were inspired by his passion for the ART of medicine, the grace of client respect and communication, the perfection of patient care. Did his students sense they were in the presence of greatness or was it just charisma? We’d need to ask Mary Lois, the one who really ran the show. 

I had been watching him perform surgery from the arms of my mother or a vet (student) sitter since before I was old enough to know what was going on. I could diagnose navicular disease before I could write my name. Observing the inside of a horse’s abdomen, as I hung on stanchion bars like a monkey, was good entertainment in those days. Maybe it was just that good. 

Or, because we didn’t have anything else to do besides look for four-leaf clovers in the lawn, hang out with the calves in the calf barn or run the gauntlet through the bull barn before the mastodons burst through the flimsy bars to get us, as if we skinny little kids — my brothers and I — were a threat. 

I’d graduated from Dr. Vaughan’s school of lameness exams and “simple” colic surgery before I started vet school — no fainting for me on the first day of surgery rotation, blood was in my blood. My father proselytized that meticulous nursing care and husbandry were core values, neck and neck, perhaps, with book learning, perhaps slightly behind the love of God and common sense. 

Church services on Sundays were often succeeded by “dropping by” the barns with us family in tow to attend to his patients, even though John Davis’ crew of barn men would have already cleaned stalls, fed the horses and swept the aisles. Students and residents would have treated the patients and updated records. Still, there we were, family time. I learned the satisfaction of flushing and dressing a leg wound. He’d clean the stall once more, fork in an extra layer of fresh straw, scrub already clean, now pristine, water buckets and give a mare a second breakfast, reassuring her with a tenderness I’ve seen him use only with my mother, or one of our family dogs at feeding time. It seemed that nursing care was as important as the surgery itself, or, at least, the only way it would all come out right in the end. 

Why would anyone with a Herculean hand strength forfeit the ever-lasting thrill of horse wrangling to shake hands with old guys in suits? Why trade a surgery table for a desk? The starry night skies for fluorescent office lights — so unbecoming. Scalpel for pen? The smell of horses and leather for Pinesol and floor wax? Could it have been the new air conditioning? That’s all I could make out, having had none at the time. 

He explained that it was time for him to take on the mantle of leadership, to administer the academic system that enables us all to receive knowledge, to enable the CVM to not only survive but grow, to recruit great minds to bring in new ideas and take what we know into the next dimension. 

I imagine that parenting a college, like our own children, is not always easy or fun, rather it’s something that we believe in with all our hearts. He wanted to serve. 

As we all learn, we veterinarians are public servants. And that much of the time, what people need for us to do isn’t that romantic for ourselves. 

Sometimes we’re needed to vaccinate hundreds of dogs for rabies in underdeveloped countries rather than solving one fantastic medical problem for one animal that may not survive regardless. Sometimes we invest our knowledge into that one case because it has emotional significance for one person, or perhaps the right to live just as a fellow inhabitant of the earth. Maybe it is not up to us to decide. Perhaps we best ready ourselves for the call to serve, rather than think of what would be the most fun to try next. Whether we inspect meat or procure funding for research, carry a client’s wounded cat from her car, puzzle out a cure for cancer or help source clean water for people and their animals to drink and water their crops with. 

Contrary to what the constitution professes, a well-lived life is one of service rather than simply “happiness,” although it’s awfully nice to have the liberty to pursue it. Peace of mind, because you dedicated yourselves to others and told the truth, is how we leave work in the evenings and feel the satisfaction of hard work. Tired sometimes, yes, but not unfulfilled. 

This has taken me a lifetime, so far, to learn. 

My father was on a mission to secure the future for Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the place of One Medicine in the world. He didn’t profess service, he exemplified it. I never once heard him complain that he was tired or didn’t want to go to work. He served up to hours before his departure, writing a letter of support for an esteemed colleague and friend. 

Now he deserves to rest, but I don’t believe that’s what he longs for.

I imagine in his heaven, he’s mucking stalls and replenishing hay in mangers, flushing wounds with iced-tea dilutions of Betadine, replacing soiled bandages with fresh sheet cotton and Elasticon and brushing the rust off his Lembert suture pattern technique. 

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