Merrilyn Fitzgerald
Fri, December 9, 2011 at 8:00
Stephanie Hunt

The most interesting person Sheree Lyons knows is Merrilyn Fitzgerald.   Merrilyn is an equine vet and also mother to a special needs child.  It is her energy and resilience that Sheree finds fascinating.  “Most people hear her name and say how does she do it,” Sheree exclaims.


A Study in Resilience

Merrilyn Fitzgerald starts to tell me about her day so far.  “I was up at 5:30am artificially inseminating mares, then I went to get a semen collection and I’ve shipped that into Cairns this morning.  I got my son ready and dropped him into school and now I’m here for the interview,” She is making me exhausted and it’s only 10am. 

Merrilyn would exhaust most mere mortals.  She specialises in equine reproduction for local practice Pacific Vetcare, teaches veterinary nursing at the Coffs TAFE and is mother to six-year-old Ryan who was born with autism and a rare form of epilepsy.  Yet here she sits on the peaceful back deck of Mangrove Jacks Café, looking out over Coffs Creek and crackling with energy, laughter and adrenalin.

We speak about her veterinary practice, her passion for teaching, how she keeps herself together through difficult times and how having a special needs child changes your idea of what’s important.

Tell me about a typical day in the life of an equine reproduction vet.

I’ve got two quite different jobs. I coordinate the vet-nursing course at the TAFE campus, and for 6 months I teach a lot of hours.  Then in spring and summer I’m an equine reproduction vet. I receive chilled semen sent from all over Australia or frozen semen imported from America or France.  During the day we’ll AI (artificially inseminate) mares, then in the middle of the night we might foal the pregnant ones. And I go to a big thoroughbred stud in Nana Glen three days a week, ultrasound all the mares, get them ready to go to the stallions because thoroughbreds have to be naturally covered by the stallion.  Basically I coordinate their sex life. 

How do you manage their sex life?

The aim is to get the mares pregnant. In any one week a stallion might have to get six mares pregnant and it just can’t be serving them all.  So what we do is we ultrasound the mares and wait ‘til they’re just ready to ovulate.  Then we say “now’s the time when she’s most likely to get pregnant” and we take her to the stallion who can serve her once and hopefully she’ll get pregnant.

What do you enjoy about equine vet work?

Every day is different.  Most of the time the animals aren’t sick – I’m just making babies.  That’s what I really like about it compared to when I used to work in the clinic.

People get so excited when they have a new foal born.  The first foal I ever delivered is about to have her first foal – it’s quite cool.

What happens during the foaling season?

Horses are pregnant for 11 months and 11 days.  Often once a horse has a foal we get them pregnant again within a month.  So the foaling and the insemination all happen within a short period of time.


I keep all the foaling and AI (artificial insemination) mares at our property during the season.  I’m in business with the Pacific Vetcare.  It’s their business but I get a cut of whatever I do. They bill through the clinic, order my drugs, cover my insurance and I get a percentage from all the work I do. 

What about your husband, Anthony?  Does he help?

Anthony’s not remotely horsey.  He’ll help deliver the foals if one gets stuck but I try not to ask too much of him.  He works full time so his role is more helping look after our son if I’ve got clients coming at night. He thinks the breeding season is a pain in the butt because I’m so busy.  He tolerates it, which is fair enough.  I get so over it myself, by the end of the breeding season I’m just ready to stop.

Is it something you want to continue on a long-term basis?

It’s probably not sustainable really long term – it’s exhausting.  The horses are at my place so I have to look after them all.  I’ve got people who come and help pick up the poo, but I feed them, catch them, everything else myself.  I really need to outsource and just do the vet work.  So we’re trying to think of ways that I can continue without it being so hard. 

How did you get involved with teaching, when the veterinary work is already so exhausting?

I just saw an ad in the paper when I was pregnant.  I started out teaching a few hours, and then last year I was approached to start the equine vet-nursing course.  The course runs for a year, but I timetable myself to teach 15-20 hours in non-breeding season, then in breeding season I teach only 3 hours a week.

I love the teaching.  The classes are quite small and you get to know the students really personally.  I love to see them go from knowing nothing to doing the anesthetics by themselves.

Speaking of watching people develop, tell me about your son Ryan?

Ryan will be 6 next month.  He has a brain disorder that is causing autism and severe epilepsy. He is about to have a big brain operation.  They are going to divide his brain in half – it’s called a corpus collosum section – to stop the electricity bouncing back and forth.  He has about 30 seizures a day, and they think that instead of him constantly hitting his head or falling over it should turn the seizures into a little twitch rather than a big jerk. 

Is the operation expected to fix the brain disorder?

No. He has a very rare form of epilepsy.  He’ll just be sitting there and all of a sudden he’ll smash his head into the table. He’ll be standing up and just fall to the ground.  The operation is to minimize injury.  There’s a 90% chance that he’ll go from a big jerk to a small twitch.  Otherwise by the time he’s 9 he’d have to be in a full face helmut to stop facial fractures.

Do you know what caused his disorder?

He was probably born with it and as he grew his brain didn’t develop as it should.

He was an IVF baby.  We tried a really, really long time to have him and then he’s had all these problems.  I’m good friends with my IVF doctor, and we always joke that he shook Ryan up in the test tube.

Are you really as up beat you seem?

Most of the time.  Sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes I’ve been very down.  But you have to get back up…it’s taken years to get to the point where you are accepting of it…but what else can you do? 

We love him. He’s a classic - he’s got a really wicked sense of humour.  It’s not what we planned, but it’s what we’ve got.

Do you think you were born with the resilience you needed?

No, it’s something I’ve worked on I think.  A lot of the time, when Ryan was first diagnosed, it would become all encompassing.  What have we done to get this?  But you just have to work through that.

Will Ryan be reliant on you for the rest of his life?

Most probably.  Our aim is that he’s happy and that he can be a bit self-sufficient.  Who knows if he’ll ever have a job or anything, but we want him to know how to dress and feed himself.  They had told us initially he would probably never talk or read or write or anything. He’s already speaking in short sentences and recognizing some numbers and words.

How has having Ryan changed your outlook on life?

All the time we spend at the Childrens Hospital in the brain ward….it has opened our eyes to the fact that there are bigger things. It’s been great for putting things in perspective.

It’s even changed my perspective as a vet.  I know people think of their pets as their kids.  I understand that, I love all my animals and our dog was our baby until we had Ryan.  But having Ryan and being in that hospital… I just think there are more important things even than my animals.  This is my child.


Merrilyn tells me that the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast is Garth McGilvray, her boss when she first started as a vet at Pacific Vetcare. He’s retired now, she explains.  But he’s been head of the Australian Veterinary Association, on the Vet’s Surgeons Board, sailed the Sydney to Hobart, was once asked to be National Party candidate…. “There’s always just some amazing thing he’s done in his life,” Merrilyn says.  


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