As we walked up the steep hill from the barn to his home, Merrit Wooding, DVM’s steps were a little unsteady as his exuberant whippet, Filly, pulled on her leash. However, sitting at his dining room table, sipping home-made iced tea, his gaze was steady and his mind was clear as he recalled his 49 years in veterinary medicine.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Mt. Holly, NJ, Dr. Wooding knew at a young age that he wanted to be a farm vet. Born in 1936, he, his sister and two brothers helped to run the farm. One of his jobs included handling the team of horses that were used to work the fields. His love of cattle and horses led him down the path to a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. He spent two years at the University of Massachusetts before being accepted into Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “I was surprised they took me so quickly, but I had finished all my required courses,” he noted. His family didn’t have unlimited funds, but his father gave him $2,000 a semester, enough to live on. At that time, tuition was $700 per semester (compare that to $31,500 annual tuition today). He lived at a fraternity house on campus which cost $125 a semester so he had enough left over to eat and buy textbooks.
Upon graduation in 1961, he took his first job in Bangor Maine in a farm/small animal practice for $125 a week, actually a living wage at that time. (Now that wouldn’t even pay to gas up the family cars). Two weeks after he started, the owner of the practice decided to go to a veterinary conference for a week, leaving a young and inexperienced Dr. Wooding on his own. “It was either sink or swim,” he laughs. His first farm call was in the wee hours of the morning when a farmer had him come out to see a cow with a prolapsed uterus. For anyone who hasn’t been up-close to a dairy cow, they are very tall and very strong. Sometimes after delivering a calf, the cow will keep pushing and ends up pushing her uterus all the way out. Bear in mind, they aren’t delivering in a hospital bed, but rather on straw that by that time is covered with tissue and blood and manure. It takes simple brute strength to shove the organ back where it belongs. Unbeknownst to the farmer, Dr. Wooding had never actually replaced a prolapsed uterus before, although he had learned about it in school. A lot of sweat and aching muscles later, the uterus was where it belonged, the calf was suckling and the farmer was none the wiser that he was the honored first solo call.
After a year in that practice, Dr. Wooding moved closer to his home, taking a position at Wrightstown Veterinary Clinic in Fort Dix with the veterinarian who had made visits to the family farm. There was a larger small animal clientele at that practice and he continued to learn the art of dog and cat medicine as well as being able to work on the cattle he loved. Although comfortable there, he started getting the itch to break out on his own and put out the word that he was looking to buy a practice.
In 1964, the search landed him in a then very-rural Blairstown, long before Route 80 made the area accessible to commuters. Route 94 was dotted with Dutch-owned dairy farms of 50-100 head. Blairstown Animal Hospital was a single-doctor practice owned by Dr. Gorse. It was mostly large animal with some dogs and cats as well, and a large barn in the back. Already well-established, it had been in existence since the late 1940s and had a loyal client base. Dr. Wooding worked alongside Dr. Gorse for six months, getting the chance to meet the farmers and get them comfortable with him before he took over the reins himself. The upstairs of the clinic was an apartment and he lived there for ten years. There was a bell on the clinic door that would ring upstairs and sometimes people would call on him at odd hours. Early on, the bell went off and he met one of the local farmers at the door. “Turns out, he just wanted to see what I looked like,” Dr. Wooding recalled with a smile. “We were friends after that.”
His mornings would sometimes start at 4:30 am to tend to a difficult calving or sick cow and go until 9:00 at night when he finished the small animal appointments. With a large territory from Allamuchy to the Delaware River, he spent a lot of his time in his truck going from farm to farm for a whopping $5 call charge. Checking cows to see if they were pregnant, giving vaccinations and handling emergencies were part of his day as well as running the small animal portion of the clinic. At that time, his wife answered the telephone and would have to reach him on a cumbersome two-way radio he carried in the vehicle. He hired a couple of high school students to tend to the kennels at the hospital. At the time, the military draft was still in existence and he was called up for the physical. However, he was deemed “essential to the dairy industry in the State of NJ” and was excused.
As the practice expanded over the years, he realized it was time to add another veterinarian. One of his kennel workers was completing his veterinary school education and he hired Dr. Ken Leal in 1984. With a strong interest in small animal medicine, Dr. Leal increased the small animal caseload while Dr. Wooding got to concentrate more on the dairy portion of the practice. Within two years, Dr. Leal became his full partner.
It was in 1989 that Dr. Wooding’s career changed in an ironic twist. He was replacing a prolapsed uterus in a cow, much like he had on his very first farm call, when he started having chest pains. He continued through the procedure. “I figured it must be indigestion,” he mused as he recalled the story. Two weeks later he was on the operating room table having bypass surgery and realized he had to give up the large animal portion of the practice. Luckily, a new veterinarian in the area was able to take on his remaining farm clients. Many of the dairies were gone by then, victims of increasing property values and increasing property taxes.
Delving into small animal medicine, Dr. Wooding would pin fractures and do late-night cesarean sections as well as managing basic vaccinations and exams. As the population in the area increased, so did the clientele, bringing with them their dogs and cats. In 1994 he hired Dr. Carolyn Clegg (then Chinnici) who also had an interest in exotics, adding another dimension to the practice. In 2003, he realized it was time to slow down and he sold his half of the practice to Dr. Leal, dropping to part time hours. Relieving him of the stress of the management of the practice let him enjoy the animals and clients more and gave him some much-needed rest after 42 hard years. In the summer of 2010, he retired completely. At that point, Blairstown Animal Hospital had transformed from a one-doctor country practice to a five-doctor progressive small animal hospital providing extensive medical and surgical services including ultrasound, endoscopy, chemotherapy and orthopedic as well as soft-tissue surgery.
He considers veterinary medicine more than a job. It was a calling for him. He enjoyed working with the clients — those were the farmers and the owners. His patients were the animals. He saw huge changes in the vocation over his 49 years in practice. Where once lab work was something that was difficult to do and often required using a human hospital, it is now done right in the hospital in all of twenty minutes. Radiographs once were developed in a darkroom and took almost 30 minutes. Now they’re done digitally with an image on a computer screen in seconds. Pain management, once non-existent, is now the standard of practice with surgical cases often receiving three or more different types of analgesia. Still, with all those advances, years of experience provide wisdom that can’t be recreated with a machine.
Now he spends his time visiting his grandchildren and working at his farm with his wife Pam, a successful dressage trainer and judge. He spreads manure with his vintage tractor and walks with Filly up and down that incline. “When I die, they’re going to find my body right on this path,” he laughs.
When asked what he misses most about his career, he doesn’t even have to think hard about his answer. “The people — the great clients I had over the years.”