Contest honors those who make house calls

Winners include some who work with animal rescue, injured wildlife

February 25, 2009 (published)
By Timothy Kirn

Two of the veterinarians who won the second annual Thank Your Vet for a Healthy Pet contest made house calls when a pet was dying, gestures reminiscent of days gone by and a gentler time.

Rachel S. Boltz, DVM, of Los Altos, Calif., stayed until the dog expired and then carried the body in her arms to her own car, ministrations the grieving owners never forgot.

Lee V. Morgan, DVM, of Washington, D.C., provides free care to guide dogs for the blind and is raising funds for a mobile clinic for injured police dogs.

They are just two of five regional winners recognized for their commitment to veterinary medicine. Clients nominate candidates for the contest run by the Morris Animal Foundation, Hills Pet Nutrition and BowTie Inc., publisher of Veterinary Practice News and the Fancy books. 

“The goal of the contest itself is to recognize the veterinary industry as a whole for the amazing work that all veterinarians do to help animals and clients,” according to Heidi Jeter, spokewoman for the Morris Animal Foundation.

“Of course because this is an essay contest, judging is subjective — having truly quantifiable and objective criteria is impossible — and so we say these winners represent the best veterinarians in America,” she said.

For the West Region, Boltz was chosen as the contest's overall winner. The feline specialist and Veterinary Information Network (VIN) member decided to become a veterinarian at age 7. While riding in the back seat of the family car, she announced her career aspiration. Her father turned to her and said, “That’s a great idea, Rach.” And so, she never wavered. 

One of her most memorable cases as a veterinarian was treating a 12-year-old cat that presented with right, rear-leg paresis. During her workup, she noted that the cat was hypokalemic, which led her to diagnose an adrenal tumor. The tumor was removed and the cat survived.

The significance was that the cat had belonged to the client’s recently deceased father, and he drew tremendous solace from the pet. He told her he saw his father smiling down from heaven because he had found the right veterinarian.

Boltz was nominated by the director of an animal rescue organization, who has referred more 600 cats to her during the past four years. It was the director’s own dog that Boltz carried to her car.

“I will remain grateful for this extension of compassion for the rest of my life,” the director said.

In the Northeast Region, Morgan not only came to the home of the couple who nominated him when their dog was dying, he brought their next dog to his home for a couple of nights for observation following surgery.

Morgan entered veterinary medicine after working with and training dolphins and helping to coordinate a program for stranded marine mammals. The veterinarian he worked with in the program impressed him because his knowledge base was so expansive, he could work on almost any animal.

In 2008, Morgan published a paper on an ancient Egyptian falcon mummy, which he and a colleague examined radiologically.

His most memorable case involved an elderly client and his diseased cat. He was able to help the cat and found out that the man was a former concentration camp internee who credited a cat with preserving his humanity during the ordeal. The client, who to Morgan appeared rather destitute, had vowed that he would return the favor and care for any cat that he encountered in need.

“I have always felt that if I were to do nothing further in my life, at least I was able to help this man,” Morgan said.

But he does do more. Morgan was nominated not only for the assistance he provided to his clients, but for his many philanthropic endeavors, which include working with the Basset Hound Rescue Foundation and local shelters.

For the Southeast Region, Dr. Thomas Walker of Augusta, Ga., chaired a committee that developed Georgia’s first disaster relief protocol for animals. He also is a Boy Scout leader and rehabilitates injured wildlife.

He decided to become a veterinarian during high school, and at the urging of his sister, got a job in a clinic that he kept during veterinary school. He said he saw veterinary practice as a way to escape the tyranny of a desk job, and he has never regretted his decision.

One of his most memorable cases involved an ostrich impacted with rocks in her proventriculus. When he tried to refer the case to a university, the owner insisted that he attempt the surgical procedure.

“We removed 20 pounds of rock from the ostrich,” he said.

Walker has served as an assistant director for the Georgia Veterinary Medical Association and invites high school students to his clinic to expose them to veterinary medicine.

“When it comes time for your furry baby not to suffer anymore, he becomes a man of compassion and cries along with you, which will endear him to you forever,” said the woman who nominated David Bainbridge, DVM, of Morris, Ill., winner of the contest for the Midwest Region. 

Bainbridge is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who gives educational talks on the peregrine falcon, during which he stresses how interrelated the natural world is, driving home the message that environmental issues have led to the peregrine’s endangered status.

Bainbridge said he knew he was going to become a veterinarian at age 10, when he used to bring home injured birds and wildlife. He sometimes slept on the floor next to them.

One of his most memorable cases occurred during his time as a Purdue University student. A farmer brought in two cows, one of which appeared to be sick. He was given the task of giving fluids to the healthier cow, which died in his care. His supervising clinician had to go to the farmer and inform him that “the wrong cow died.” His classmates later teased him, referring to such occurrences as a “Bainbridge maneuver.”

Bainbridge also helped his city buy its first police dog and provided care for the animal.

In the Southwest Region, Dr. Lisa Willis of Round Rock, Texas, was nominated because of her work with the Central Texas chapter of Greyhound Pets of America and its adoption program for dogs that fail to qualify for the racetrack or are retiring from racing.

“Because we are a non-profit, all-volunteer organization, cost of treatment is an ongoing issue for us, and Dr. Willis never loses sight of that,” said the group’s nomination essay. “Not only does the clinic under her direction give us a very generous discount on procedures and medications for the foster dogs in our program, but she invariably will opt for the more conservative course of action when possible.”

Willis does not say she has given to the more than 1,000 Greyhounds she as cared for, but that she has learned from them.

“We used to think a 10-year-old Greyhound was old, but now a 13-year-old doesn’t surprise us,” she said.

Willis, who is a VIN member, said she became interested in veterinary medicine in elementary school, when her lamb that was attacked by a dog.

“I was amazed at what the veterinarians could do to put that torn-up lamb back together,” she said. 

Now as a practitioner, she keeps a drawer full of letters from clients that she reads to remind herself what it means to practice veterinary medicine. 

“You don’t always realize the impact you’ve had on a family until they lose a pet and they send you a letter thanking you for the extra months or even years you gave them with that family pet," she said. 

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