Kelly Wilson, DVM: Taking the lead to empower the visually impaired community

As a child, Dr. Kelly Wilson would rescue birds from fallen nests and nurse them back to health. And, what began as a caring endeavor has grown into a deep-rooted commitment to providing veterinary care to guide dogs at Leader Dogs for the Blind, a non-profit organization providing programming and guide dogs for the blind or visually-impaired, in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

After graduating from Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Wilson worked in a small private practice for 12 years, before the opportunity of a lifetime came knocking. Now, after 10 years of service with Leader Dogs for the Blind, Dr. Wilson focuses on delivering the Leader Dog mission.

Voice of the Vet™ toured the Leader Dog facility with Dr. Wilson following her morning surgery that required the removal of a mass from a dog’s jugular vein.

How did you come to work for Leader Dogs for the Blind?

Our facility has been here since 1939, so I had driven by, but had never actually been inside. I saw the job posting for a full-time associate veterinarian and a friend encouraged me to apply. I was hesitant at first because I had three small kids at home and was working part-time at my previous position. But after touring the facility, I just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work with this organization. Dr. Smith, our director of veterinary services, has been here for over 30 years. I was excited to make a change and learn.

Initially, I was worried about work-life balance, but my family has made it work. My kids are better because of it. They see the spirit of our volunteers and what it means to give back to the community. I love that they get to see a parent who’s not only working, but loving what they do, that’s what it’s all about.

What do you think makes a healthy vet and do you feel like a healthy vet?

I do feel healthy. In the veterinary industry, we talk a lot about compassion fatigue. There are so many troubling stories. As veterinarians, we want to make a difference. Practicing here, I know that I do make a difference. I can practice medicine and do what’s best for my patients. We are so lucky to have the resources available to do the procedures or treatments our patients need to stay healthy. It’s beneficial for my mental state to know that I can make the best decision in terms of treatment for my patient and not have to worry about financial constraints. We don’t have to converse with pet owners about cost or advocate for our treatment plans. If I know what’s best for my patient, I can do what’s best for my patient.

What is your favorite thing about coming to work each day?

Our mission motivates me. Leader Dogs for the Blind empowers people who are blind or visually impaired with lifelong skills for safe and independent daily travel.  I know that each team member, whether they work in dog care, client services, or administration—everyone contributes to this amazing mission and helps those who are visually impaired. Everything we do each day helps these dogs make someone’s life better. During our quarterly meetings, our president reads thank you letters and kudos from our clients, puppy raisers, donors, and people who just want to say thank you. Our leadership team constantly reminds us how grateful people are for the work we do. It’s pure motivation.

Aside from your pet patients, what do you like most about being a veterinarian that has surprised you?

I really like solving problems. As a vet, your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong. But I can figure it out by watching and touching the patient and deciding what tests to run or how to treat the problem. Solving problems is really cool.

There are probably many, but do you have any memorable patient stories you could share with us?

There are so many for countless different reasons. One in particular was a puppy named Finn, who was in the “puppy raising” stage of Leader Dog training. He was favoring a back leg, which caused him to limp. We took Finn to a local rehab specialist and she designed a protocol of exercises for his weak leg. At only seven weeks old, he needed constant care. I took Finn home to keep a close eye on him and work on his physical therapy. His leg healed and he progressed into the training program.

When he finally returned to the facility as an adult, I could tell he still recognized me and my dog Tug. I could feel the connection whenever Finn and I passed in the hallways. I had never raised a puppy with Leader Dogs. Bless our puppy raisers—I don’t know how our volunteers give up these puppies after a year.

Finn eventually graduated our program and became a full-fledged Leader Dog. I was giving a health lecture at the residence facility where clients train with their dogs and there was Finn, in harness, walking with the client. I said hi. And this was the coolest part—he looked at me, turned his head, and kept walking. He was totally focused on his job. It was very touching. I’m so glad he was able to do the job.

Are there any procedures that you love that others might find gross or bizarre?

In private practice, I never had the opportunity to use instruments like endoscopy and ultra-sound—equipment usually limited to specialty practices or high-end clinics. I really enjoy using these instruments when needed. Recently, we had a Spanish-speaking client in class and her guide dog, who was always very healthy, began vomiting every day. Something was not right. Our program has strict timelines on when a guide dog graduates and leaves with the client. This dog was going to Mexico and we had 20 days to get him back to normal.

He was still eating, working, and exercising. We performed radiographs and blood work, which didn’t show anything. So we put the endoscope in him and found pieces of vinyl in his stomach. Our clients use buses to acclimate to everyday travel and this visually impaired client didn’t realize her dog was chewing on the bus seat. I was able to retrieve those pieces with the scope, without invasive surgery, and he went back to work the next day. I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to do that in private practice.

I also enjoy C-sections. I didn’t perform C-sections in private practice because most pet owners spay their dogs. Now, I do about 12-15 per year for our colony of breeding dogs, when it’s needed. Ultimately, we hope that the puppies will come naturally, but sometimes they need help and I love it.

What’s a misconception about what you do?

When I told my veterinary colleagues I was taking this job, some suggested I would be bored. That my cases would only include wellness visits, fecals, and vaccines. That’s the biggest misconception. I push and challenge myself all the time. I see everything from fractured limbs to dental work to mastitis to foot lacerations from escalators. Things happen all of the time. There is something new every day. I am always learning.

We perform 1,200 anesthetic procedures each year. Annually, our team cares for all 500 dogs in training, which includes their entry exams. In addition, each dog receives a head to toe physical at least three more times during training. Ultimately, we are looking at them every four weeks. Often times, we’ll see them between regular exams if our dog care team says it’s needed. There are days when we’ll perform physicals for a class of 30 dogs. Our director of veterinary services and I split the load and take turns, so it’s manageable.

What’s one piece of advice you would pass on to future vets?

Don’t be afraid of change. Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy. Change jobs or do something different. Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you because you never know what might happen.

Leader Dogs for the Blind offers externships to senior veterinary students as well. We have students from all over the country. It’s a unique opportunity because students get to follow the life of a Leader Dog from conception to graduation. They also get to see many different facets of clinical practice. Our externship is located on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s externship locator, as well as on our website.

Thinking back to the day you graduated vet school, is your career what you thought it would be? If not, how is it different?

I always knew I wanted work with small animals. A veterinarian has a very rewarding job. I am able to help animals and people at the same time. It’s an aspect of my job that I didn’t think was possible. These dogs have changed and saved lives. Someone told me about a client who was trying to get into an elevator and kept commanding the dog to go forward, but his Leader Dog refused to move. Turns out the doors were open, but there was no elevator. That client would not be here if it weren’t for his Leader Dog.

About Leader Dogs for the Blind

Founded by three Detroit-area Lions Clubs members in 1939, Leader Dogs for the Blind empowers people who are blind, visually impaired, or Deaf-Blind with skills for a lifetime of independent travel, opening the doors that may seem to have closed with the loss of sight.

Leader Dog programs are crafted to address individual situations and adapt to each clients’ changing needs at any point in their lives. From youth camp to orientation and mobility cane training through guide dog training and GPS technology integration, Leader Dog’s programs provide clients the confidence and skills they need to live independent lives free of charge.

All photos are courtesy of Jerry Zolynsky at On Location Photography.

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This is the eighth post in a series of interviews with veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and practice managers discussing their devotion to the noble veterinary profession and love for their pet patients. We hope you will follow us during this series.

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