Lou Ann Good
STRASBURG, Pa. — When Dr. Darcie Stolz parked her four-wheel drive vehicle packed with veterinary supplies in front of the dairy barn, a little boy called to his dad, “The cow doctor is here.”
Regardless of whether or not she is called cow doctor or veterinarian, Stolz has the responsibility of providing health care for many Lancaster County bovines. She owns Dairy Production Medicine, 397 Shaub Rd., in Strasburg, Pa. Although the clinic is an in-home office, where Stolz, Dr. Tom Wilson and Dr. Bernard Ritchie meet to plan daily schedules and do record keeping, their work is mostly conducted on farms through mobile vet services.
On a recent day that started with a 17-degree temperature, snow flurries and vicious wind, Stolz made several stops at farms to check on herds and to determine the cause of a sick cow.
At the first stop, an Amish man, who prefers not to have his name mentioned, remembered the first time Stolz came to his farm, about 28 years ago.
“I was skeptical of a woman vet, but that first day, she did more for my cows than any man ever did. She’s a good one. I really depend on my vet with reproduction, somatic cell count and herd health. I’d hate to be without a vet,” he said.
The responsibilities of a cow vet have changed drastically in the 28 years since Stolz first began practicing.
“The old-school veterinarians didn’t want to share information because they thought it would take away from their business,” Stolz said. “But I think our services should be more preventative care than a fire-engine response (to life-threatening illnesses).”
Stolz estimates that about two-thirds of her daily calls are non-urgent and pre-scheduled. On routine calls she performs herd checks for pregnancies and heat detection. She carries ultrasound equipment with her for detection. While she is working, Stolz carries on a casual conversation with the farmer or herd manager. Interspersed among conversations about family weddings, deaths and children, Stolz inquires about herd health, milk quality, herd nutrition and other leading questions to determine whether or not there are herd problems that need to be detected and addressed.
“Farmers have such narrow margins for profits. A dairyman’s bottom line depends on the health and productivity of the herd,” Stolz said.
According to her, a vet’s responsibility is not only to treat sick cows but to help attain the highest performance possible. She can access DHIA records, ration evaluations and other data to advise on making a farm more profitable.
Most people are surprised to hear that Stolz grew up in the suburbs of Erie, Pa., without any exposure to farms. She even admits that as far as she knew milk came from the store. When she enrolled in Penn State’s pre-vet studies, she intended to become a small animal veterinarian. That changed when she worked in the sheep and beef barns during her Penn State schooling. The experience opened up a whole new world and convinced her that she wanted to work with food animals rather than pets. She soon settled on becoming a bovine vet, but it was difficult for her to even schedule job interviews because of her gender. Most veterinarians and farmers thought the work was too physically demanding for a woman.
She was thrilled when she was hired to help a vet with his Lancaster County practice, but that held another learning curve for her. Most of her clients were Amish and Mennonite farmers, and she was as unfamiliar with their lifestyles as she had been with farm animals. But Stolz’s admiration for the family and austere lifestyles of her clients gave her a basis for conversation. Many of her clients have become like family to her. They liked her caring and calm personality. Most of all they liked how she was determined to help them run a more profitable business. Stolz was quick to explain and instruct them in procedures that they could do themselves.
“Good communications skills are essential,” Stolz said. She believes in taking time to explain the “how and why” behind situations. She teaches clients to administer calcium IV’s (intravenous therapy) and other medicines to the herd, but she is always only a call away.
In fact, Stolz prefers to answer the phone herself, although she does have a full-time secretary. “When I talk with clients, I can get a pretty good idea of what needs to be done,” she said. “I can tell them what to expect.”
In some veterinarian practices, clients paid by the procedure rather than an hourly rate. Stolz believes it is fairer to charge clients an hourly fee because the client can have a list made and the cows tied, which enables vets to spend more time providing services and advice than standing around waiting for animals to be caught or figuring out which cows are supposed to be checked.
At one of Stolz’s recent stops, farmer Dave Hess, who milks about 105 head, was concerned about one of his cows running a 104-degree temperature and not eating. Stolz asked a few questions and checked the cow. She found that two of its four quarters had a mastitis infection. Stolz advised stripping its quarters several times, recommended appropriate antibiotic treatment and administered a calcium intravenous feeding.
“If this treatment doesn’t bring the fever down, then there is another reason. Call me,” Stolz said.
Hess said that when Stolz first visited the farm, his dad was in charge. “He might have had some reservations about a woman vet in the beginning, but there was no question who we would have for a vet by the time he retired. As long as she knows her stuff, and she does, that’s what matters,” Hess said.
After every visit, Stolz hoses the manure off her boots and scrubs them and the equipment she used with hot soapy water and disinfectant. She said that it is important to practice biosecurity and not to carry viruses from one farm to another.
Stolz keeps detailed notes on each visit and the medical records are entered on the computer when she returns to the office.
Long, irregular hours made up the early years of her career, but that has changed. Stolz explained, “One of the benefits of a preventative medicine philosophy is that hours become more scheduled, and less emergency, fire-engine runs so that when I am on call, I often do not need to go on emergency calls. It is important that young people looking into food-animal veterinary medicine as a career know that the work schedule is not the crazy life of years ago. I think one of the major advantages of a food-animal practice is the flexibility of your time during the day. Even with more scheduled hours, someone is always on call for when an emergency arises.”
“I couldn’t do this without a supportive husband,” Stolz said. Throughout their years of raising two daughters to adulthood, her husband often needed to help with child care and household duties. Having an in-home office has both advantages and disadvantages. “When I’m in the office, I can throw a load of wash into the dryer between my bookwork, but I also never get away from my work,” she said.
In 2009, Stolz was asked to give the commencement address to Penn Vets. The event caused Stolz to reflect on her life as a vet over the past 28 years.
She’s pleased that she selected bovines instead of small animals. More vets are pursuing small animal practices, but Stolz said, “I’m happy I’m not stuck in a clinic with back-to-back 15-minute appointments with cats and dogs. I like the philosophy of working with people who see animals, not merely as pets, but as business and have a realistic approach on cost-effective treatment.”
“My job has mental challenges when it comes to determining reasons for high herd abortions or breeding problems. But I like compiling the history and putting the pieces together to come up with a solution,” she said.
She has the added expense of a vehicle, but driving between farms gives her opportunities to admire the countryside and refresh her mental outlook.
“It’s a physically demanding job,” Stolz said of pulling 100-pound calves, performing Caesarean-sections and other surgeries. “I’ve learned that preventative practices of how and where I stand can keep me from becoming injured.”
In her 28 years as a vet, she has had numerous black-and-blue spots from kicks and animal defiance, but she has never needed to miss any work due to injury.
“I’ve heard you should never write on your application to vet school that you want to be a vet because you love animals,” said Stolz. “But my love of animals initially is what directed me toward a path of veterinary medicine, and I think anyone who wants to become a vet loves animals. Enjoying biology and the sciences, and the maturation of my ideals into wanting to help maintain our nation’s animals’ health and well-being came during my collegiate years and solidified my goal of becoming a veterinarian.”
Ask almost any showman at youth dairy and livestock shows what he or she wants to be when she grows up and the most common response is “a vet.”
Sad to say, few of these youth will attain their dream job. Some students become disillusioned by the minimum eight years required beyond high school. But more often, aspiring students do not realize that steps toward becoming a vet need to be laid long before applying for vet school.
Becoming a Vet
According to Malcolm Keiter, director of admissions at the University of Penn School of Veterinary Sciences, students should make an appointment with one of the 28 veterinarian schools in their senior high school year to find out course requirements.
“It’s important to be determined and never let up,” Keiter said of the tough credentials needed for entry into vet school, and to keep on track during the four years of undergraduate work.
More is required than having the right courses and top grades — vet school admission also demands that enrollees have 500 to 600 hours of vet experience in either a paying or volunteer position.
“Experience is required because we want students to be aware of exactly what being a vet entails,” Keiter said. “It’s not just petting dogs and kittens. That isn’t reality.” According to Keiter, students need to recognize the business end and the people skills of relating to clients.
It’s tough gaining entrance to vet school. In fact, it’s been said that it is tougher to get into vet school than into medical school. Keiter put that into perspective. He explained that there are only 28 vet schools in the U.S. compared to 130 medical schools. In addition, classrooms are smaller and most classes are limited to 80 students. Many of the students are not accepted into vet school on their first try. Stolz wasn’t, even though she had top grades. She applied three times before acceptance, and her experience is common. If a student is not accepted, he or she should follow up with the admissions counselor to find out the reason. Having top grades isn’t a guarantee of admission. The typical grade point average for students at the University of Pennsylvania is 3.6.
Keiter said the vet school strives to be receptive to student strengths in science and life experiences. Because space is so limited, the school wants to be convinced that students won’t drop out or change their mind because they were unaware of what becoming a vet entails.
“The biggest obstacle students face is doing well throughout college years and in graduate school. “Students need to be determined and never let up throughout undergraduate and graduate studies,” Keiter said.
Students select one of five areas of study to focus on. These categories include large animals, food animals, equine, mix of small and large, and small animals. The most popular is the mix of studying small and large animals. Each of these areas includes electives, classroom and clinic experience.
Thomas Van Winkle has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years after years of private practice and as a pathologist. He said most students know what type of work they want to pursue when they enter graduate school. He estimates about 60-80 percent of graduates enter private practices, but others continue schooling for specialized studies in surgery, pathology, radiology, public health, diagnostic labs and research. Some work in zoos, for rodeos, or with show horses. The curriculum is constantly changing to keep up with the various fields of studies. Some of these include anatomy of species, biochemistry, physiology, cell biology, basic nutrition, radiology, disease, core courses of basic sciences, pathology and clinical courses. Studies also delve into insurance, legal issues, ethics courses and clinic operating.
Computers enable more online class participation. Perhaps the most dramatic change in veterinary medicine during the last decade is the change from raising animals for food to having them for companionship.
“It’s more lucrative for small animal vets than for large ones,” Van Winkle said.
Tuition is high. The average student graduates from vet school with $130,000 in student loans. Some have even higher debts.
Although there are fewer positions available due to the economic downturn, according to Van Winkle, upon graduation from vet school, graduates have no difficulty finding a job.
“It may not be in the area they wanted or at the location they prefer, but they can find a job in the vet sector,” Keiter said.
For more information, check out the website: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Penn-Vet-School.