Local Folk – Matt Gumbrell

Vet Matt Gumbrell is well known in the community – whether people see him driving around in his little green Austin, volunteering his skills at community events or at work in his Orewa Beach clinic. His curiosity draws him to new experiences, interesting places and activities and, as he tells Terry Moore, he does not believe midlife crisis is a thing.

I have travelled to Mongolia seven times and in 2006 and 07 our family lived there. There is a veterinary development project there and I went over as an educator, training a team of Mongolian vets who then train 1000 other vets. I was teaching large animal, and a bit of small animal stuff, to vets who knew little of modern veterinary medicine. Their level of education and access to drugs is very poor and there are lots of counterfeit drugs in circulation that are useless. It’s an utterly different economy and environment from New Zealand – the people are nomadic herders and they are not wealthy enough to pay a vet, so if you have a lame horse you sort it out yourself. While we were there, the most interesting animals I treated were reindeer and vultures. It works well, as long as you think of a vulture as a big budgie and a reindeer of course is just another ruminant. My wife Nicky and I and our three kids were living in a very basic old Russian apartment in the city of Ulaanbaatar and the toughest thing was the pollution. Security was another issue – we would occasionally be grabbed by a drunk man; you have to have your wits about you. But the majority are warm-hearted, fun loving people. One of the highlights was being part of a small community of other families and our richest experiences were friendships with Mongolians and experiencing their culture. The project is ongoing and we are still involved – we went back last year. The programme has brought marked improvements for some people and for others it’s had no effect at all.

I turned 50 last year and decided that midlife crisis is not a thing – it’s midlife focus. And as a project for my focus, I decided to climb a significant mountain, Mt Aspiring, with my 25-year-old son Isaac. Isaac has been a keen rock climber and I’ve been an adventurous tramper but this kind of climbing was new to us both. We did an eight-day course with a guide with a strong focus on physical training. Climbing is a form of movement that requires a lot of learning to do safely. I spent seven months getting fit for Mt Aspiring. My guide said I trained as though it was a Himalayan peak. For the actual climb, in January, we started in the dark at 3am and the sun rose as we climbed. We reached the summit at 9.30am. The terrain was a mixture of rock and ice. It was, without doubt, the best physical achievement of my life. The things that stick out were a feeling of utter privilege to be in a beautiful and unforgiving environment. As we climbed a rocky ridge, with glaciers all around us, it felt like a magical kingdom; Jeremy Clarkson describes this kind of beauty – where you “bite the back of your hand to stop yourself from crying”. We have caught the bug. Since then we’ve climbed on Ruapehu and in the Arthur’s Pass region and we’re doing another alpine climbing course in the Remarkables to take us to the next level of skills, safely. The thing I love about climbing is that feeling of being humbled. My lifelong passion is to live life as a learner, which is why I love being a vet because you never know it all. After 25 years as a vet, every day I learn something.

We are very ‘species-ist’ as humans – we assign value to particular species over others, yet a mouse can be as loved and valued as a $5000 fancy puppy. I have seen a six foot six tattooed bloke utterly bereft as he held his dead rat. We moved here 25 years ago when I was a new graduate. I worked for Jim Grayson, who was a great teacher. There is no formal internship – you are just thrown into it. I was 25 years old, but people used to say I looked 15 and I was often told I didn’t look old enough to be a real vet. At one after-hours call I went to, the gentleman asked when my father was coming! My dad is a vet pathologist who instilled in me a love of science and a curiosity about the world. I have a natural love of animals and had a menagerie as a kid. Science aims to make the lives of animals and people better but I think the communication around that has been poor, leading to misunderstanding. Science is always expanding our knowledge and capability. Since I’ve been in practice, I’ve seen massive changes and the level of patient care has gone through the roof. When I started, the pain relief we had available was basic, whereas now for any form of pain – surgical or arthritic – we have a whole host of medications and simple, kind techniques. We have blood analysing equipment so in 15 minutes we can have 50 blood test results in front of us. We can send digital xrays around the world and get opinions from experts. Along with this has come higher expectations of animal welfare on behalf of clients. The place of pets in our lives has risen and risen. Society is waking up to the power of the human-animal bond. Something that hasn’t changed is that you gain people’s trust which is a real privilege and sometimes scary. You get invited into people’s lives in a really significant way because their animals are so important to them. I have seen many animals right through their lives to when I have to help them pass on. About a quarter of the time when I am euthanising someone’s pet they will say ‘we should be able to do this for people’. When I talk with medical friends, the feeling is that if our society allows euthanasia, there has to be a great deal of thought and support given to the people who are tasked with performing it.

I have been driving a green Austin A35 for 12 years. Nicky and I had an Austin van when we were both students and the A35 was also our daughter’s wedding car. It has about the same fuel economy as a Corolla but the Corolla has five times the horsepower. Now I prefer our Nissan Leaf.

As a family we like outdoor adventures and are keen trampers. I also love windsurfing, which I’ve done locally ever since we moved here, and I also wind-foil, badly. I will do anything on the water that doesn’t involve an internal combustion engine. Keeping fit is a great counter to the intensity of mental and emotional effort involved in vet work. I don’t know if there’s any other job where you get to make someone’s day – like the time someone brought in their cat thinking it had got a tumour and it turned out to be a barley sugar stuck in its fur! Then of course there are the times when someone brings in an animal thinking it’s just a bit unwell and you find out its actually more serious; you see the shock on people’s faces. There is a lot that we can’t control – unexpected outcomes can happen with something you have done 1000 times, so you never relax or take any risks when working with people’s animals. In fact I find it easier operating on my own animals because it’s me making the decisions without it impacting anyone other than my family. One thing I love about my job is being part of a team – I would hate to work alone. You need each other and you have to have laughs.