Veterinarian Elizabeth Mitchell treats livestock across 6 counties
It's a fine fall morning, the early fog has surrendered to a brilliant October sun, and inside an ancient, dusty barn, Elizabeth Mitchell has her right arm plunged elbow deep up a cow's rear end as she checks inside to feel if the creature bears a calf.
The veteran veterinarian has no second thoughts about her calling of being a large animal doctor, an often thankless profession that proves to be usually dirty and always dangerous, as she puts her life in peril working in close vicinity to critters weighing half a ton or more.
"I get a lot of women who ride with me who want to be vets, but after they see all the physical labor, they decide it's not their cup of tea," says Mitchell, 56, one of a handful of women veterinarians who practice on big animals in Middle Tennessee.
"I go to Goodwill and buy my shirts. I get blood and crap on me every day. It's real glamorous work," joked the vet, who, by the way, wears pearls and earrings.
"When I started out doing horses and livestock, a women vet was a pretty rare thing. One time I went on a farm call and the old farmer told me, 'If I knowed you were coming, I wouldn't have called.' I told him, 'Well, I can go back.' I pulled a calf, and I guess he thought I could do the job. He paid me, but I didn't go back."
Rough and ready, independent and possessing a healthy sense of humor, Mitchell speaks her mind and tells it like it is. The Brush Creek resident drives a three-quarter-ton, white Chevy pick-up with heavy-duty suspension. A mammoth tool box in the truck bed has been modified for veterinarians, transforming the back of her truck into a mobile clinic.
This call finds her inside a 100-year-old barn in Chestnut Mound where she kicks off her chores by vaccinating calves for brucellosis, a procedure she compares to "vaccinating your dog for rabies," before she proceeds to inspect pregnant cows and heifers, part of Stan Webster's herd of registered polled Herefords.
As a cow hesitates before entering the chute, Mitchell jokes, "They're supposed to just come on in. Some of them haven't read the book.
"Come up, come up, sweet pea," she says, coaxing the cow to move further up the chute.
Seconds later she's elbow deep into a cow's rear end as she goes about her duties.
"It's here. About five months on this one," she says, referring to how far along the calf has been in the womb.
"A cow that ain't pregnant ain't worth feeding through winter," Mitchell notes. "It cost about $500 to $600 a year to run a cow."
The next inspection results in a barren heifer.
"She's open," reports the vet. "Put her on the road [to market]."
A lonesome trail
Mitchell's path to becoming a veterinarian was not an easy row to hoe as she met objections at numerous crossroads before she graduated from the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama in 1985.
"I was raised up the sixth of seven children in a little narrow-gate holler in Gilbert, West Viginia," she says about her roots. "We did subsistence farming. We had some cows and a horse to work the ground. Dad was a coal miner.
"When I told my mother I wanted to go to college, number one she said, 'We ain't got the money.' I told her, 'I ain't asking for any money.' Number two she said, 'Why do you want to go to college? You're a girl.'"
Even a few years earlier the thought of becoming an animal doctor had tickled her fancy as in the ninth grade she shared her sentiments with her physical education teacher, who doubled as guidance counselor.
The mentor's response to Mitchell saying she was mulling the possibility of being a vet?
"That's awful hard, and besides, you're a girl."
Mitchell wouldn't take no for an answer just as she takes no guff today.
After completing two years at Southern West Virginia Community College, she worked "cleaning windows and painting houses," which then allowed her to pay cash upfront for her tuition, board and dorm as she obtained a bachelor's degree at West Virginia University.
Earning her vet license, a license she once held in seven states, she went to work at a small animal clinic in New Orleans. From there she served as a vet at a greyhound racetrack in Eutaw, Alabama, followed by vetting horses at Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw, Oklahoma.
"Horse racing is dirty, dirty business," she said of the latter assignment.
In late November 1986 she answered an ad placed in a veterinary journal by Lebanon veterinarian Dr. Phillip Kinslow and wound up at his clinic for six years, gaining valuable experience.
"We done everything. If it walked, talked, squealed, we worked on it," she recalls. "Wasn't any bears but camels, snakes, birds, raccoons, pot-bellied pigs."
Prefers hooves over paws
Nowadays, she says, "All I do is livestock, hoof stock primarily, cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, horses. I try to stay within 30 miles of Brush Creek."
For the past 20 years, she has practiced in Smith, Wilson, DeKalb, Putnam, Cannon and Jackson counties.
Why does she choose big critters over dogs and cats?
"The people who own the big animals are not as high maintenance," she answers. "I am not good at holding hands, and I have no tact. One lady told me I was brusque. I'll tell you my opinion and it might hurt your feelings."
But she has other reasons. She enjoys being around cattle (she raises a herd of Limousin) as well as being in the company of farmers.
Of the latter she says, "Most of my clients, after a while, they become my friends."
"I'm not very good being indoors. You're out in fresh air and working for yourself. I'm real good at working for myself because I'm hard-headed. And I like working on cows.
"I like what I do, but like anything you do, it's a job. Sometimes I start early in the morning and 10 hours later I ain't done. One of these days, I'll retire but it won't be this week," said Mitchell.
Close calls aplenty
"She's the best," said farmer Stan Webster, who recalled a day long ago when his son had a prized cow that was about to kick the bucket. "I told her, 'You save this heifer and you are my vet.' She saved it. She's been my vet for 30 years.
"When you have a problem, she'll figure out what it is. She will come when I need her. I can leave her a note and she knows what needs to be done. She's a good person, a good vet and a good friend.
"My son rode with her for one summer," Webster said. "That's when he decided he didn't want to be a vet."
"He didn't know they can kill you. They're ain't nuthin' more dangerous than a sick cow," said Mitchell," who has had her share of close calls.
"I ain't had nuthin' broke yet. I been stomped and had some concussions. A hog once hit me across the forehead with his jawbone. I did see stars," she recollected.
Pointing to a small dent, a souvenir imprinted in her forehead, she says, "That came from a 2-by-4 after a cow hit it. It knocked me flat."
Smiling, Mitchell confesses that she doesn't always remember farmers' names, but "I always try to remember the animals that try to kill me."
When not treating cattle, horses, hogs and goats, or tending to her own herd, the veterinarian does a bit of gardening, loves to read and brags that she's a dern good cook. (She makes her biscuits from scratch using White Lily Flour and lard. Nuff said.)
Dirty job, but she loves it
Mitchell doesn't know how much longer she will continue to labor amidst muck, crap, blood and sweat, whether it be beneath beautiful fall skies or in a sizzling hot barn in July or a frigid pasture in February, but for now she's hanging in there.
"I have slowed down a lot. I'm kind of picky about what I do. Some days I ask myself, 'Why do I keep doing this?'
"You probably won't see many more vets like me," she reasons. "Today they come out of school with a quarter of million in debts. I don't make a big bunch of money. I make a living. I ain't gonna get rich, but I like what I do."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.