As he races tirelessly from farm to farm caring for mid-Michigan’s dwindling livestock population, Dr. Jan Pol never once considers basking in his recent fame as a television star.
“The Incredible Dr. Pol,” featuring Pol, his wife Diane and other veterinarians at his Weidman practice, will begin shooting its fourth season on Nat Geo Wild this month. The rigors of filming have left Pol’s routine unchanged, as he insists on going unscripted at all times.
“If they don’t get what they want on the first try, too bad,” Pol said of the 25-person film crew that floods his clinic. “When I take a calf out of a cow, I don’t shove it back in for a second take.”
After producing 150 to 200 minutes of film per week, which get edited down to a 40-minute episode, Pol soon learned to address his new, national audience with stronger sense of education amid his 10 farm calls per day.
“I learned to run my mouth a lot, like a lot of folks,” Pol said of being on the air. “I have to explain a lot more when I am working with the animals. It was hard at first, but you grow into it.”
Although the show has only been onscreen since 2010, Pol Veterinary Services has been servicing nearby farms in Isabella and other counties for 32 years. His first 10 years as a practicing large-animal vet found him in Harbor Beach.
Supporting Pol as the clinic’s office manager, his wife Diane met the doctor in high school when he was an exchange student from the Netherlands. She said that after convincing him to open shop in her native Michigan, the couple set to identifying areas most in need of Pol’s expertise.
They landed among the dairy farms and horse stables of Isabella County.
“He originally wanted to do all large animals, so we looked at counties to see what vets were in the area,” Diane said. “We looked at the percentage of cows and pinpointed the area as having a need for vets.”
Recently, as Mega Farms have taken over the industry, Pol has begun working with smaller domesticated animals. But his desire to care for them has remained large as ever.
“It’s not a rich community, but when we started here it was 80 percent dairy farms,” Pol said. “Now the family farm is gone. The bigger the farm, the less we can do. We have been doing a lot more small animals, but as a vet, animals are animals. Big or small, you try to help them out.”
Another veterinarian at the clinic, Brenda Grettenberger said the practice has formed tight bonds with the community during the turbulent times. Despite the attention the practice has garnered, she was unwavering in the necessity of vet-to-owner relationships.
“I like working with the animals and the people. It’s kind of like an extended family,” Grettenberger said. “The vet community itself attempts to build a rapport with the patients. You’re all working toward the same goal: making the pet healthy and happy.”
Grettenberger explained the Pol’s unique style of management. Without a human resources department, she said, their practice ended up feeling more intimate, for better or worse.
“The clinic is set up to run as a family,” Grettenberger said. “The structure is loose. We have the same dysfunctional issues as families.”
After 20 years and 11 months as a veterinarian, Grettenberger took some adjusting to the distinction of being broadcast in homes throughout America.
“I’m not sure I’m ecstatic about being on TV,” Grettenberger said. “It does put a different slant on what I do. Sometimes the notoriety, I could do without. You have to brush your hair every day.”
The film crew works in five teams of five, with three teams following Pol during his farm calls and surgeries. Grettenberger was immediately aware of the risks associated with the crew’s initial lack of experience and awareness of the setting.
“We have to keep ourselves, the crew and the animals safe,” she said. “A lot of (crew members) come here, and they don’t really know what’s going on. It makes it take a bit longer.”
To Pol, the crew has steadily gotten more adept at understanding the workings of the clinic. Outfitting his examination and surgery rooms with extra lighting, Pol is certain a balance can be struck.
“They have been here so many times, they know what’s going on,” Pol said of the crew. “By the time I get to the farm call, the farmers are all mic’d up and know I’m on the way. It can get chaotic, but the patients always come first.”
Pol said he looks out for the customer’s best interests, especially when it comes to the money factor. He recalled finding tumors in an aging cat through a simple physical exam, and was able to tell its days were numbered without charging patients for expensive tests.
“Success is being honest. Give the patients options,” he said. “If they can’t afford the top-of-the-line treatment, do what you can with less. Don’t push people into doing things you can’t afford. If you can make a diagnosis without having to run a $500 test, and the outcome is the same, leave it up to the owners.”
Pol also said livestock animals pose a challenging moral dilemma when afflicted.
“If the prognosis is bad, you cannot send them back to production, it’s not worth it,” he said. “If they can’t produce, you send them up to market.”
Pol chose large animals as an 11-year-old living on a Dairy Farm in Utrecht, Netherlands. He recalled delivering piglets to nearby residents, and never gave up when people in his home country discouraged him from opening his own practice.
He attended Utrecht University, the only accredited veterinarian school in the Netherlands. After his relationship with Diane blossomed, he set his sights on Michigan.
“They said if you want to practice, forget it,” Pol said of his colleagues in the Netherlands. “I was going to go to Australia or New Zealand, but I ended up in Michigan. I wanted to work with animals, but I do my best to try and help the people, too.”