Shy is not a word anyone would associate with Alex Hynes on Bondi Vet: Coast to Coast. On screen every Friday night she comes across as being confident, approachable and professional, at ease in front of the camera and with the wide variety of people and pets she meets. As a child, however, Hynes was far more reluctant to interact with others, and frequently sought the company of animals. Her decision to become a veterinarian is perhaps unsurprising, but what is notable is that throughout Hynes’ career, she has consistently challenged herself to move beyond her comfort zone, tackling obstacles – including a fear of public speaking – head on.
“I was very shy as a child, and we moved around a lot,” Hynes said. “I struggled with people and making friends, so I gravitated towards animals. I felt happy and confident around them, particularly horses.” Even so, veterinary science was not the first course of study she pursued once finishing high school in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Having enjoyed subjects such as business studies and economics, Hynes initially decided to pursue a career in finance. She accepted a cadetship with a bank in Sydney, only to discover she found working nine to five each day monotonous and the city commute frustrating. “That’s when I went back and thought about what I really loved, and animals were always part of my life,” Hynes said. “My mum had always hoped that either my sister or I would become a vet, and in the end we both did.”
Hynes applied to study veterinary science at the University of Queensland, and was accepted. Despite not knowing anyone in Queensland, she headed north, and quickly realised she had made a good decision. “From the first day at vet school I knew this was something I was going to be doing for the rest of my life,” Hynes said. “What had set me on the path was my affinity with animals, but once we got into the diagnostic side of things at vet school I loved putting the pieces of the puzzle together.” She also loved living in Queensland, where (other than a five year stint living and working in the UK) she has remained ever since: “I fell in love with the place and the people up here, and I never really left.”
After graduation, Hynes worked in mixed practice, primarily treating cattle and horses, but transitioned to small animal work when she went to the UK. “I found I plateaued at a certain point,” Hynes said, “and in hindsight I realise I was looking for a new direction when I started to take on shifts at an emergency centre over there.” It did not take long before emergency veterinary medicine had Hynes hooked. “All of a sudden I found by learning while really having an impact and I started to feel fulfilled again,” she said. “I really believe that fulfilment comes from making progress throughout our lives, and that has really continued through my emergency career, because every shift and each critical patient is unique and challenging.”
Returning to Australia in 2007, Hynes took up a position as a junior veterinarian with Animal Emergency Service, where she soon progressed through the ranks to become Veterinary Manager and then Hospital Director at the company’s flagship hospital in Underwood. In 2011 she completed a Master of Veterinary Studies by Murdoch University, and in 2014 was awarded Membership to the Emergency and Critical Care Chapter of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists.
Hynes remains passionate about emergency medicine. “I think that it satisfies the critical thinker in me, who likes to look at problems from all angles and find solutions” she said. Being on the front line and the variety emergency practice brings are also aspects of her work that she enjoys. “We’re often making decisions with incomplete information, and it’s constantly pushing me, so that’s exciting,” she said. “I get to look at all sorts of different cases – neurological and cardiac cases, for example, as well as traumas – and I get to do emergency surgeries and save lives on a daily basis. The variety makes me come back for more all the time.”
One emergency surgery Hynes and her team performed a couple of years ago was particularly memorable, when a baby koala was brought into the hospital by a foster carer on a busy Sunday night. The koala weighed only 500 grams but was very bloated, and x-rays soon confirmed she had a twisted gut. Having called Australia Zoo to arrange emergency transport for the koala, Hynes was advised that the animal was in real trouble and unlikely to survive the journey. If it was to have any chance of survival, the operation would need to be performed immediately. “We had never done surgery on a koala before,” Hynes recalled, “and I think the most incredible thing about that evening was the way the team pulled together to make it possible.” With Australia Zoo on speakerphone providing instructions on how best to anaesthetise and intubate a koala of such a tender age, the vets and nurses were able to get the distressed animal into theatre for life saving surgery. “I remember coming into the ICU the next day and seeing her clinging onto a branch, happily eating her gum leaves, and I think that image will stay with me forever,” she said. “I really felt like we had made an impact on our precious wildlife, and seeing the ability of the team to do something they would never have dreamed of doing was a proud moment for me.”
Interestingly, it was one of Hynes’ team members who nominated her to take up the new presenter role on Bondi Vet – something Hynes herself would never have dreamed of doing had she not set herself two goals six or seven years earlier: to overcome her fear of public speaking, and to show the community what happened behind the scenes in an emergency veterinary practice. “For me, the turning point was when I realised how much my difficulty communicating with people was holding me back from achieving what I was capable of in my field,” Hynes said. “I really wanted to bring people into the back of AES and show them what we did, to introduce them to the vets and nurses who dedicate their lives and give up their weekends and Christmases to work there, and to share the inspiring stories.”
To achieve her goals, Hynes recognised that she would have to seek out engagements that required her to speak to and interact with the public on a regular basis, by attending community events and learn to speak to a camera. “I just started doing it,” she said. “In the beginning, I was not very good at it – I was terrible! I felt awkward and it felt unfamiliar – but the more I did it and the more I saw it had a positive impact, the more my confidence grew.” Being motivated by a desire to bring down the walls between vets and pet owners – particularly in relation to emergency veterinary care – also inspired Hynes to continue. “Many owners are not able to see the value in what vets do when so much of it happens behind closed doors. In their mind, they drop their dog or cat off at reception, and suddenly the have a big bill, and they wonder what on earth just happened?” Hynes pointed out, adding that demystifying emergency care for the general public became more important to her than her own initial discomfort with speaking and interacting with strangers. “I had moments where I really did struggle,” she said, “but I think that when you have a higher purpose in mind and you keep that at the forefront, all those smaller obstacles you face pale into insignificance compared with what you’re trying to achieve.”
When the call went out for a new Bondi Vet presenter, Hynes was ready. She remembers recording her nomination video at 2:00am in the relative quiet of the hospital pharmacy, because the emergency room was so noisy and chaotic. “I just down in front of the camera and started talking about why I wanted to bring viewers into the emergency room,” Hynes said. “I’d had that vision long before then, but I was really starting to see that Bondi Vet could be the opportunity for me to open the doors and share the stories of courage and love that we witness every day here.” What Hynes did not expect, however, was for the video to go viral on Facebook. “We got this huge wave of support,” she said, “and over the next twelve months the production crew came up and met with me and filmed in the hospital, as they did at a number of locations across the country, and in the end there were five candidates remaining.” Eventually, the decision was made to showcase all five vets, including Hynes, in clinics across the country, and Bondi Vet: Coast to Coast was born.
Hynes admits that making the transition to having a television crew filming her every move was testing, particularly in the beginning. “At that time I was also Hospital Director at Animal Emergency Service, and my role was to make sure clients were being looked after, support the vet team, ensure procedures were flowing in the hospital, and to trouble shoot any issues that arose, as well as looking after my own patients.” In an emergency practice that regularly sees between sixty and seventy emergency patients in a day, continuing as Hospital Director in addition to filming episodes of Bondi Vet became too difficult. “Stepping down as Hospital Director was hard for me, particularly because Underwood Hospital has been my home for the past twelve years, but I think it has been the best move for myself and for the hospital to allow other leaders to step up and bring their own ideas.” Hynes said. “The role in Bondi Vet required me to be a different person – it required me to be Alex the Vet who was sharing a patient’s journey and story through the camera, not Alex the Hospital Director who was looking around seeing what was going on and making sure everyone was OK.”
Filming in an animal emergency hospital presents a range of challenges, especially given many cases that come into the clinic require immediate action, but Hynes has been fortunate to work with an experienced camera crew who have been working on Bondi Vet for the past decade. “As vets we tend to get stuck in and do what we need to do – we’re not used to talking through every step of what we’re doing,” she explained, “but the camera crew has a very clear understanding that the needs of the patient come first, so they stand back and let me do my thing, and if I can’t stop and speak to the camera they know they can come back and catch the details up via interview grabs later on.” Hynes also points out that Bondi Vet is not so much about the clinical side of veterinary work, but about the connection and love between pets and their owners, and her job is to bring that special bond through the camera to the audience. “Being in emergency brings another level to that, because it’s invariably an emotional time for the family involved,” she said, “but we have been able to capture some incredible stories while making sure we are always taking the very best care of the patients.”
Hynes believes that an important aspect of achieving good patient care stems from developing a strong and positive partnership between vet, owner and animal, and passes this philosophy onto the junior veterinarians with whom she works with and the graduates she mentors. “We go to vet school, we learn a lot about how to treat diseases, but we don’t necessarily prepare our vets as well as we could on how to develop connections with clients and to communicate so that they can develop that deep understanding with the client for the benefit of the pet,” she said. In addition to encouraging the vets she mentors to hone their communication skills, Hynes suggests they set clear career goals that they revisit often and adjust as required. She also points out the benefits of working with people you aspire to be like, rather than the job offering the biggest pay packet or the most attractive perks, and the importance of asking for feedback and of being unafraid to fail. “Once upon a time I would have cringed telling stories about the ups and downs of my career, but now I find that those stories are incredibly powerful tools that I can share with young vets,” she said. “I’ve had some spectacular failures, and what they’ve left me with is a rock solid confidence that I can learn and grow and do better every single time that I fail.”
When asked how she balances her busy work life with her personal life and motherhood, Hynes is similarly philosophical. “Don’t let someone else decide what a good mother looks like,” she said. “I work most weekends, but I pick my daughter up from school most days, and I love that. It’s all about focusing your time on what lights you up and deciding for yourself what parenthood is, and not letting it be dictated by other people around you.” In her own life, Hynes believes in prioritising her time, especially in relation to exercise and sleep, in asking for help when she needs it, in letting go of the need for things to be perfect, and in setting clear work-life boundaries.
Outside of veterinary work and family life, Hynes is involved with Rebuild Hope Nepal, a charity founded by her partner Gerardo Poli in 2016 following the earthquake that devastated the country the previous year. The charity currently focuses on providing educational opportunities for children whose schools were destroyed, but is intending to branch into building medical facilities in the future. In addition to her charity work, Hynes is also a keen scuba diver who describes the experience as being like “disappearing through a portal into a magical world of different creatures – I love the sea life, but I also love the quiet down there.” At the moment she only gets to dive a few times a year, but dreams of taking six months off sometime in the future and go and do some of the great dives around the world.
Other than a lengthy dive adventure and the possibility of running (yes, running) the Kokoda Track next year, Hynes nurtures a dream of pet owners and veterinarians having vastly improved access to veterinary emergency services around Australia. “There are still a lot of places in Australia where vets have to do a lot of on-call work, and I would love for there to be an animal emergency service hospital in regional and capital cities across the country,” she said. “It would mean vets could spend time with their families when they need it, they can be fully present for their clients when they’re at work, and walk out the door at night knowing that they don’t have to worry, someone else will take care of their clients and patients until they come back in the morning – I would love to be part of creating the solution around that.” If it takes her out of her comfort zone, one can only assume Alex Hynes will, one day, pull it off.