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As a specialist in veterinary radiology, Dr Rob Turner provides essential diagnostics for an array of other specialists. By Frank Leggett
After working in general veterinary practices for around six years, Dr Rob Turner came to a crossroads in his career. He and his wife were talking about starting a family and he was contemplating how his future might look. He had decided to either buy into a practice or pursue a specialty. At the same time, he was becoming more involved with ultrasounds and diagnostic imaging, greatly enjoying the challenge of the work. The decision was made.
“I did the memberships but access to a residency in radiology is limited,” recalls Dr Turner. “Luckily, a position opened up at the University of Melbourne and I threw my hat into the ring. I felt fortunate to be accepted. The training lasts for three years but it ends up being five years by the time you get to the final exams. Throw COVID into the mix and it was a six-year exercise.”
Today, Dr Turner is a specialist in veterinary radiology, working at the Veterinary Referral Hospital (VRH) and Greencross Veterinary Hospital (GVH) in Melbourne. His areas of interest are vascular imaging, neuroimaging, swallowing studies, interventional radiography, and interventional ultrasonography. He’s also in the middle of a PhD investigating diagnostic imaging methods used in the evaluation of body composition and tissue distribution in dogs. His dog, Teeka, a German short-haired pointer, is assisting him.
“She’s been an important part of my PhD,” says Dr Turner. “I used an ultrasound on her to gather some baseline readings. The only issue is that I had to clip Teeka’s belly, much to my wife’s displeasure.”
Teeka is also a hero at the VRH. She is a regular blood donor, responsible for directly saving the lives of four other dogs.
“She’s an incredibly beautiful soul and really good with my young kids,” says Dr Turner. “She doesn’t even need sedation for donations anymore. She just lies on the table and happily donates her blood.”
Originally from Zimbabwe, Dr Turner’s family moved to New Zealand where he graduated from Massey University in 2009. He worked in general practices in Adelaide, Cairns and Jaipur, India. He also volunteered at the Animals Asia centre in Chengdu, China, and returned to India twice to assist at small animal welfare clinics. He achieved his ANZCVS Fellowship in Veterinary Radiology in 2021.
“I was attracted to radiology because imaging accounts for about 50 per cent of diagnostic work,” says Dr Turner. “My personality is suited to problem-solving and I really enjoy working on complex cases to find an answer. The other aspect of radiology I enjoy is the interventional component. If a problem can be fixed using interventional radiology without the need for extensive surgery, it’s very satisfying.”
The VRH and GVH have a wide range of departments—anaesthesia, diagnostic imaging, emergency, medicine, neurology, oncology and surgery—all under one roof. The cases are varied and Dr Turner often works closely with Dr Sam Long, head of the neurology department at the VRH.
“We have one of the largest neurology teams in Australia and Sam is a leader in the field,” says Dr Turner. “Our team performs neuroimaging of brains and spinal cords. When dealing with brain tumours, we commonly put the patient through a post-operative MRI in order to assist in deciding whether to send the patient back for more surgery.”
Dr Turner is also deeply involved with the medicine and surgery teams. Working collaboratively, they aim to be as precise as possible to reduce the size of surgical incisions. When a dog needs a foreign body removed after, say, eating a toy, a classic surgery would see the surgeon open the dog from sternum to the pelvis for an exploratory laparotomy.
“With advance imaging, we can confirm exactly where the foreign body is located and ensure there’s no trouble anywhere else,” says Dr Turner. “That means the animal has the most non-invasive surgery possible.”
While the work is unpredictable and no day is the same as any other, Dr Turner sees that as a positive. It’s a job that requires quick thinking, attention to detail and the ability to pivot at a moment’s notice. When surgeons need an immediate answer to whether they should operate or not, it can be an extremely stressful situation.
While Dr Turner enjoys helping solve the more extreme cases, it’s often the simpler problems that provide the most satisfaction. Rather than just giving a professional opinion from a diagnostic imaging perspective, he enjoys solving the issue himself.
“At the VRH we diagnosed a puppy with a massive abscess within its pelvis,” he says. “Normally, this would mean splitting the pelvis to gain access to the abscess, with the dog hospitalised for a long period of time. Under ultrasound, I was able run a drain through a five-millimetre incision into the abscess. It drained beautifully and the dog recovered quickly. Being a diagnostician, I often don’t hear back about the outcome of patients. With these simpler cases, I get immediate feedback.”
Pay the price
Tertiary level care such as that provided by the VRH and GVH comes at a cost. Clients are clearly appraised of their financial obligation as some cases can be extremely expensive. Despite this, the hospitals are constantly busy and in high demand.
“Some clients are willing to do whatever it takes to save their pet,” says Dr Turner. “A client may agree to brain surgery for their dog and then send their animal to Sydney for multiple treatments of radiation. The dog may need repeat surgery if the tumour grows back. While there is often a price cap on how much people will pay, it’s complicated. The privilege I have with my role is that by the time clients come to us, they’re highly motivated to do whatever it takes to save their pet. It’s quite humbling to be part of these tertiary level medical care cases.”
Art of radiology
Dr Turner believes that interpreting different types of imaging is almost an art form. It’s relatively easy to look at an image and read a radiograph but interpreting the image in a clinical context requires going deeper, pulling the layers together and drawing on a lot of experience.
“When looking at an artwork, it can be seen as just a nice image,” he says. “But to really unravel the story, you need to look deeper, to see the layers, to understand the artist’s intent. It’s a similar story with radiology. The professionals make it look easy but they’re drawing on a wealth of experience and expertise. It’s taken me many years of training, experience and attention to detail to get to where I am today and I’m still learning new things every day.
After five years working as a specialist veterinary radiologist at the VRH and GVH in Melbourne, Dr Turner is moving to Adelaide with his family. He’s taken a job at The Austin Veterinary Specialists, a new specialty practice.
“I’ll look after the imaging needs of the specialists within the practice,” says Dr Turner. “The Austin provides high-level imaging as it’s at the forefront of the services they provide. The job is perfectly suited to my skills and Adelaide is a great city to raise a family. I can’t wait to get there.”