By Dr. Becker
Today, I’m beginning a new interview series called "Highlighting the Healer," in which I plan to interview holistic veterinary practitioners around the globe. In this first segment, I’ll be talking with three veterinary students – Alli Troutman and Danielle Conway from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, and Joanne Lin from the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine -- who have elected to incorporate integrative medicine modalities into their repertoire while they are still in vet school. In addition, I’ll also be chatting with two new recently graduated Doctors of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Rhiannon Fenton and Dr. Carrie Donahue.
Interview #1: Veterinary Student Alli Troutman
My first guest is Alli Troutman, who is a senior at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.
I asked Alli to explain when and why she decided to become a veterinarian. Alli replied that her grandfather was a vet; actually the only veterinarian for a small town in Iowa. She grew up visiting him at his office and going on occasional calls with him. At just five years of age, she was telling people, “I want to be a vet when I grow up.”
As she reached middle school, Alli was still interested in becoming a vet. She started shadowing veterinarians at clinics in her area. Her interest remained as she entered high school, and during that time she completed a year-long mentorship where she spent an hour a day, every day at a veterinary clinic.
While in college, Alli did more shadowing and worked in the large animal surgery department at UW’s veterinary school. After three years as an undergraduate, Alli applied to the vet school and was accepted.
I asked Alli if she plans to pursue her desire to join a mixed animal practice (one that serves both large and small animals) when she graduates. She replied that she’s definitely open to it. Her acupuncture and chiropractic training involved both large and small animals. Alli says she certainly doesn’t want to rule out a mixed animal practice, but when she graduates, she’ll be living in Milwaukee, and there aren’t a lot of cows in Milwaukee!
Alli Decides to Pursue Training in Alternative Therapies in Addition to Her Regular Vet School Coursework
Next, I asked Alli how she decided while still in vet school that she was interested in incorporating modalities like acupuncture and chiropractic into her career. She answered that although she didn’t know much about integrative medicine before vet school, she was lucky to have an excellent integrative veterinary medicine club at the school. She also had classmates who were very interested in integrative medicine. She decided to attend a few luncheons and lectures, and it was acupuncture that really caught her interest.
Alli and five of her classmates took the Chi Institute course online, which meant they didn’t have to miss much school to complete the course. She says the UW vet school was supportive, even though she and her classmates were viewed as sort of the “odd ducks” of the group.
I’m really glad to hear that Alli’s school was supportive. Twenty years ago when I was in my senior year of vet school, I went to the dean and asked permission to take some non-traditional courses, and it was a really difficult thing to get done, for a number of reasons. Schools offering courses in acupuncture and other alternative therapies typically didn’t accept anyone still in vet school. I also had to fly to attend classes, so it was a big, complicated deal.
Now, 20 years later, there are actually integrative programs in vet schools, which is wonderful. Alternative therapy certifications are easier to attain, and access to non-traditional courses is easier to achieve.
Allie was able to earn her animal acupuncture certification in her third year of vet school. During her fourth year, she attended animal chiropractic courses in Kansas. To get that done, she took what is called an “Other Option Track,” which is a program designed for students whose educational needs cannot be entirely met within the vet school. Alli explained that pursuing her chiropractic certification was definitely far outside the norm for vet school students. She felt acupuncture was much more accepted than chiropractic, probably because the UW School of Veterinary Medicine opened their own acupuncture service a few years ago.
Alli Already Has a Job Waiting for Her with an Integrative Practice After She Graduates
I asked Alli what types of veterinary practices she’ll be looking at after she graduates. Will she want to work for a practice that already practices integrative medicine? Or is she thinking about joining a traditional practice and starting an integrative department?
Alli responded that she definitely wants to work where she can use her acupuncture and chiropractic training. She doesn’t feel it’s even an option to join a practice where she wouldn’t be allowed to use those therapies in her treatment of patients. She says she’s willing to be the first vet in an existing practice to do acupuncture and chiropractic, as long as everyone else in the practice is open to the idea.
I asked Alli if she’s found some practices yet that are open to alternative/integrative modalities and she replied that she has. And in fact, she has been offered – and has accepted – a job upon graduation!
She’s joining a practice that currently offers laser therapy, and they are very excited about adding acupuncture and chiropractic to their list of services. So they are welcoming Alli with open arms!
I think it’s absolutely wonderful that Alli was able to get complimentary therapy certifications under her belt while still in vet school, so she can graduate prepared to hit the ground running at a veterinary practice that wants to take advantage of her integrative approach to medicine.
Alli feels she’s only scratched the surface of the modalities available in integrative medicine. She’s a member of the national board of the student chapter of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) and was able to attend their conference a couple of years ago. She was overwhelmed at the amount of information provided at the conference and it made her want to learn more.
I asked Alli what type of course she’s thinking of taking next, or if she plans to master her acupuncture and chiropractic skills first before picking up a new skill. She replied that what she wants to do and what she probably should do are two different things. She wants to learn more about alternative therapies, but she knows she needs to spend time perfecting her traditional medicine, acupuncture and chiropractic skills first.
With that said, Alli thinks she’d like to study herbals next, followed by a rehabilitation course. I shared that next on my list is to become a certified aromatherapist. For some of us, the learning never stops. We’re driven to learn more so that we can offer more to our patients.
I’m confident Alli will be a true blessing to any community in which she practices veterinary medicine, and I want to thank her for talking with me today and helping me kick off my new series, Highlighting the Healer.
Interview #2: Veterinary Student Danielle Conway
My next guest today is Danielle Conway. At the time I interviewed her, Danielle was just about to graduate from the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine.
I asked Danielle to explain a little about why she decided to become a veterinarian. She responded that she believes she was born with the “vet gene!” She believes every young female feels the need to rescue random critters from around the neighborhood and bring them home. But, Danielle was the squeamish type. Once, while watching a surgery being performed in a barn, she passed out, tumbled into a fire extinguisher and came to surrounded by a green fog! At that point she decided maybe being a veterinarian wasn’t for her.
So Danielle worked in the biotech industry for a while. She got a degree in microbiology and then sort of backpedaled her way into veterinary medicine. She worked for a veterinarian and he said, “You should be a vet.” And so today, she is becoming one!
I asked if working for the vet helped her get over her squeamishness. Danielle said that it did, but she also devised a plan of her own to overcome the problem. She started by watching videos. She made herself focus on the anatomy of the animals in the videos and tried to avoid identifying with the animals themselves and the pain they were feeling.
I think that was an excellent strategy – viewing videos. It’s a way to gradually desensitize yourself to all the sights, sounds and smells of surgery, as well as the emotions it can invoke. Danielle says she’s proof you can get over a problem with squeamishness!
How Danielle Knew Integrative Veterinary Medicine Was in Her Future
Next, I asked Danielle if she was raised in an environment where integrative treatments were the norm. She replied that indeed she was, and went on to explain that she was very ill as a child. There was talk of radical surgery. She was constantly in the hospital with pneumonia that would linger for long periods. Finally, her parents decided, “There’s got to a better option than this. There’s got to be something else out there.” So they took Danielle to a naturopath.
After a few rounds of herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture, she was able to be a normal kid again – play in the mud, have pets, and enjoy a fun quality of life.
I asked Danielle if she went to vet school knowing she wanted to be part of an integrative practice. She replied that she absolutely did, and in fact, that was her goal – to become an integrative veterinarian.
I asked Danielle how she was able to blend integrative training – alternative therapies –with her traditional coursework. She answered that she jumped in right away. Like Alli Troutman, Danielle got involved with the school’s strong integrative medicine club and participated in seeking outside speakers and hosting nutrition conferences. She said it was a good way to reinvigorate herself when she grew tired of memorizing lists of body parts or pathophysiologic processes. She would recharge her batteries by going out and finding the next exciting speaker to come talk to the club at a luncheon or conference.
Danielle found many of the speakers inspirational. There were homeopaths, acupuncturists, rehab specialists, chiropractors, and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners. She found herself wanting to do it all, and all at the same time, which wasn’t a realistic goal. So she decided to start with traditional Chinese medicine at the Chi Institute. She began attending in her third year of vet school, and upon receiving her diploma, Danielle will be certified in both traditional Chinese veterinary medicine and acupuncture. She is also a certified veterinary spinal manipulation therapist.
What's Next for Danielle
I asked Danielle whether she’ll practice with large or small animals, or both, and she answered it will be both. And she’s had opportunity to practice a little bit during her schooling. She did several externships (experiential learning opportunities) during her fourth year, and is grateful to the open-minded professors who allowed her to do some of them in the areas of chiropractic and acupuncture.
I asked Danielle if she has run into professors who were apprehensive or concerned about her interest in alternative therapies. She replied that she’s had some skeptics along the way, but as soon as she’s able to explain what she wants to do and why, they become open-minded enough to let her try.
After Danielle graduates she’ll do an internship at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh. Half the internship will be a small animal rotation and half will be nutrition. After that, Danielle plans to do a residency in nutrition and receive further training in integrative medicine. Which means she has about four more years of school ahead of her!
I want to thank Danielle for talking with us today. I know she has a bright and really wonderful future ahead of her in veterinary medicine. Hopefully we can stay in touch and perhaps do an update interview to see where her advanced training takes her.
Interview #3: Veterinary Student Joanne Lin
My third guest today is veterinary student Joanne Lin, who is in her third year at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Joanne was born and raised in San Francisco. Her parents emigrated from Taiwan.
Interestingly, Joanne says she didn’t grow up with pets. Her mom had a Cocker Spaniel as a child and when the dog died, she was so devastated that she wanted to protect her own children from that kind of sadness. Joanne appreciated her mother’s protective instinct, but on the other hand, she feels she missed out on some great childhood memories and experiences.
Joanne and her sister played with stuffed animals as children. They came up with an imaginary “Animal Land” and made up characters that have stayed with them to this day. She feels Animal Land was probably her inspiration for wanting to care for animals in real life.
Joanne's Incredibly Diverse Background and Circuitous Route to Veterinary School
I asked Joanne at what point in her schooling she became interested in helping animals. She answered that it was actually a social justice course that got her thinking about medicine and the disparity between people who have access and people who don’t. She wondered how she could help her fellow human beings and fellow living beings live healthily.
Joanne’s major as an undergrad was environmental systems modeling. “I have to say I took a very circuitous route to veterinary medicine,” she says. As an undergrad, she explored a lot of options for her future. She was a cellist growing up, and after undergrad, she stepped away from the sciences and went to The Juilliard School, where she earned a masters degree as a performing cellist. She spent the next 10 years in New York working as a freelance musician.
And it was in New York that she had her first pet. She was walking through a park, and a cat came up to her and wanted to go home, so she took him home with her. He’s been with her five years now.
While in New York working as a musician, Joanne realized that even though she loved what she was doing, there was more she wanted to do. She yearned for something “hands-on” that connected her directly with people. A wonderful friend of hers, Carol, was her inspiration. Unfortunately, Carol is very ill and stays home a lot, but what makes her come alive are her animals. Through her illness and the illnesses of her cats and her bunny, Joanne has had the opportunity not only to help Carol, but also to learn about the power of love.
Carol was also instrumental in showing Joanne, through the care of her animals, about things like homeopathy, essential oils, and Chinese herbal medicines. Through her friendship with Carol, Joanne came to appreciate the more holistic approach that integrative medicine allows.
Joanne's Vet School Experience and Her Plans for the Future
Unfortunately, once Joanne was in vet school, alternative therapies like those she’d been exposed to through Carol weren’t a part of the curriculum. Vet schools are adamant about teaching “evidence-based medicine,” which is fine because vet students need to learn to practice good medicine. But the only alternative modality even discussed at UC Davis is acupuncture, and Joanne believes even it is somewhat marginalized. And there aren’t actually classes in acupuncture or any of the alternative healing modalities. It’s up to the students to seek out the information for themselves.
Fortunately, there are other resources in the Davis area, like an excellent equine surgeon who attended the Chi Institute, and another veterinarian who treats small animals and exotics.
I asked Joanne if she has any classmates who are also interested in learning skills outside the traditional curriculum. She said most definitely there are. The school has a student-run club, the Holistic Veterinary Medicine Club, whose mission is simply to expose the student body and faculty to different alternative modalities. They try to pick their speakers carefully for maximum impact – without scaring anyone off!
Two years ago, the club was small – maybe three officers and a handful of students. Last year Joanne joined the group, became an officer, and was able to increase membership to around 80. They held a one-day symposium and had over a hundred people in attendance, which was really exciting!
I asked Joanne what her plans are after graduation. She answered that first she wants to solidify her training and become comfortable with Western medicine. She also hopes to attend the Chi Institute. She wants to add acupuncture and herbal medicines to her arsenal of therapies she can offer her patients, and she hopes to intern with various practices in the area.
Joanne says she feels lucky to be in California where many practitioners have started to embrace the integrative medicine approach. She plans to seek out those people and hopefully build relationships that will allow her to learn from their experience.
Joanne plans to work in small animal private practice after she graduates. Her long-term goal, however, is actually to have a hospice – sort of a rescue sanctuary for animals. She envisions having people come into the hospice to help with the animals, especially children and older folks. She believes hands-on experience in nurturing animals is very helpful in teaching responsibility and respect for life, especially for kids. Joanne also feels older people in our society are marginalized, and inviting them to work at the hospice would be her way of recognizing their contributions and giving them an opportunity to help animals, children, and each other.
I think that’s a wonderful idea, and I’m very excited for Joanne’s future. I want to thank her for sharing her story with us and I look forward to watching her evolve in her veterinary career.
Interview #4: New Vet Dr. Rhiannon Fenton
My fourth guest is Dr. Rhiannon Fenton, a recent graduate of Western University who has decided to pursue a career that includes integrative medicine. Rhiannon is an equine veterinarian.
First, I asked Rhiannon to talk a little about her background and why she decided to become a vet. She replied that she was born and raised an only child in Southern California. Her family had a German Shepherd named Magnum, who Rhiannon considered sort of a brother. Whenever Magnum was feeling under the weather, Rhiannon “doctored” him. She says it was very natural for her to want to heal her pet, and when she couldn’t make him better, she felt helpless. Realizing her innate desire to heal animals came easily and early to Rhiannon. She knew as a child she wanted to become a veterinarian one day.
Rhiannon began riding horses at about four or five years of age. She felt an immediate connection with them. She began exercising her neighbors’ horses for free when she was in the eighth grade. She also practiced Tellington TTouch on them. So at just 12 or 13 years old, she was gravitating toward natural healing therapies. And when she witnessed the animals respond to it, it reinforced for her that, “Okay, this is the path I want to go on with.” She knew she had a special connection with horses, and that she could heal them using natural methods. She didn’t have to pump antibiotics, steroids or other drugs into them to help them feel well. Rhiannon also felt a psychic connection with horses. She was able to communicate with them.
Rhiannon Began Building Her Practice and Client List Before Graduation
Rhiannon attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo for her undergraduate studies, and then went to Western University for veterinary studies. She picked Western because the school is non-traditional. It focuses on problem-based learning and lots of hands-on training. Rhiannon wanted to acquire real-life experience during vet school rather than pursuing the usual curriculum and not really getting her feet wet until after graduation.
Western was also close to her home and family. She had two horses with her during both her undergrad studies and vet school. She was able to collaborate with people in the area, find stable arrangements for her horses, and have a great local support system while enduring the rigors of vet school.
Rhiannon is the first Western University graduate I’ve talked to, so I asked her if her school was more receptive to alternative methods of healing than more traditional vet schools. She answered that while in school, she chose not to discuss her ability to intuitively communicate with horses. “You can’t tell everybody you can hear the animals, because they’ll think you’re crazy,” she said. She remembers that there were professors at Western who were open to at least talking about acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs and so forth, but it was never the primary focus. The primary focus was traditional veterinary medicine.
While still at Western, Rhiannon enrolled in a five-month program for animal chiropractic. She also began building her business and website based on what she knew she wanted to do after graduating. She also trained horses and worked with horses that a lot of people wouldn’t touch because they were too dangerous. Rhiannon has the ability to connect with them using natural horsemanship concepts. So toward the end of her vet school education, she was already building a client list and implementing alternative training methods. It all came together for her.
Rhiannon Graduated Vet School Already in Charge of a Growing Holistic Equine Veterinary Practice
Rhiannon has also received certification in spinal manipulation as well as chiropractic. At the time of our interview she was taking acupuncture training for both large and small animals.
She also trained in Reiki during her first year of vet school. Her aunt is a certified aromatherapist, and she helps Rhiannon apply aromatherapy in her practice as well. She even creates special blends for Rhiannon to use with her equine patients.
Rhiannon also does bodywork based on her knowledge of where horses get sore. She did a lot of research – watched videos, and read books from leading experts in the field who have set a precedent for how to heal animals using bodywork.
Rhiannon’s practice is called Vital Equine Holistic Veterinary Medicine and Professional Horse Training. Her services include all those we’ve discussed – chiropractic, bodywork (which includes massage therapy, and stretch and release exercises), Reiki, and aromatherapy. The first thing she does when she arrives to examine a horse is provide the animal with a peace and calming essential oil to get things off to a good start with each patient. She also offers homeopathy, herbal remedies, and intuitive healings.
Rhiannon’s patients are primarily problem horses, though she does do chiropractic and bodywork on some performance horses. But her training is usually with horses that everyone else has given up on.
I asked Rhiannon if she feels incredibly fulfilled in her career so far, and she says she absolutely does. She’s certainly off to a great start and is at a really exciting point in her career. Rhiannon is a great example of someone who entered vet school knowing she wanted to be an open-minded healer. She received her foundational training at Western University, and then began adding alternative healing tools to her patient toolkit.
I want to thank Rhiannon for chatting with us today. I can’t wait to see how her practice unfolds in the coming years!
Interview #5: Dr. Carrie Donahue
My fifth and final interview today is with Dr. Carrie Donahue, who has an integrative veterinary practice in Madison, Wisconsin, which is where we’re chatting today. And this is a really neat place! It’s beautiful, but very quaint. It’s energetically warm and balanced. I asked Carrie how it came to be.
She said it has always been her dream to have her own veterinary practice – to set it up the way she wanted to, and to practice veterinary medicine the way she wants to and the way that best serves her patients.
Carrie has been a DVM for three years, so I asked her if practicing integrative medicine was on her mind when she first graduated from vet school. She answered, “Yes, definitely.” And in fact, even before she went to vet school her dream was to be a holistic veterinarian. Once she was in vet school, she became immersed in her conventional medicine coursework for four years, and it wasn’t until she graduated that she began to seek out alternative therapies and programs. She received her certification in acupuncture after graduation.
Carrie's Very Special Acupuncture Niche
Carrie has actually developed a kind of specialty acupuncture niche for older animals and those at the end of their lives. I asked her to talk a little about that.
She said that as soon as she began practicing acupuncture, most of the patients she saw were geriatric animals nearing the end of their lives. Her treatment of these patients just naturally evolved into using acupuncture as part of a hospice program. Eventually, Carrie began performing at-home euthanasia as a way to continue that level of care for her patients.
I think it’s a wonderful gift Carrie is offering her patients and their families. Euthanasia is both the hardest and one of the most important jobs veterinarians do, because it relieves suffering. It’s the final gift we can offer a patient – to help the body to return to a state of pure positive energy.
Carrie transitioned from doing house calls to having her own space about six months prior to our interview. She’s a solo practitioner, so I asked her to describe a typical day. Carrie explained that she also still does house calls, so a typical day usually involves several in-clinic appointments and at least one house call. Every day is different, and she never really knows when she gets up in the morning how the day might go.
Many days she’ll get calls for at-home euthanasia in the middle of the day and she adds that into her schedule. She also typically has at-home acupuncture house calls planned. And then she sees patients at her clinic for wellness checkups, bloodwork and that sort of thing. So every day tends to be different, and Carrie really enjoys the variety.
In addition to acupuncture, Carrie is also working with essential oils and herbs, which she researched on her own and learned about from other integrative vets. She’s also thinking about adding chiropractic and perhaps homeopathy to her toolkit.
Carrie’s practice has grown almost entirely through referrals. She does very little advertising, especially recently.
Carrie's Acupuncture Demonstration
I’d like to thank Carrie for welcoming me into her practice today and spending time talking with us.
The rest of this segment features Carrie performing acupuncture on Loki, one of her senior canine patients.
Loki has some anxiety issues that Carrie feels she can help relieve, as well as do some overall calming with the acupuncture needles. Loki’s mom, Heather, also explained that he’s having some arthritis symptoms, including stiffness, in his hips.
The first acupuncture needle Carrie inserts is right on the top of Loki’s head. In Chinese medicine this is called the permission point, and it always comes first. It’s like an opening to the entire process, and is sort of asking the animal for permission to do the procedure. It’s also a very calming point that triggers a release of endorphins.
The next needle goes into the center midline between Loki’s hips. This is another permission point, and it gets the energy flowing between the two points.
Next, Carrie feels down Loki’s back looking for any spots that are generating heat and she locates additional acupuncture points. The needles are placed along energy pathways called meridians that travel around the body. Placing needles along the meridians removes blockages to the flow of energy and promotes healing.
One of the main meridians is called the bladder meridian, which runs all the way from the back foot, up the leg, up the back, all the way to the eyes. The bladder meridian has association points for all the organ systems in the body.
Next, Carrie will place needles around the hip joints on both sides of Loki’s body. These needles will promote blood flow to the area and relieve inflammation. Another acupuncture point that’s excellent for the hind legs is located right behind the knee.
As Carrie places the needles, she can see that Loki is calming down. One of the most frequent questions she gets is, “Do the animals feel the needles going in,” or “What do they feel when they’re getting the acupuncture?” There may be a mild reaction to the placement of a needle into a very sensitive spot. Sometimes the skin will twitch a bit. But often there’s no reaction at all and patients don’t seem to feel the needles.
Once all the needles are placed, often patients will become more relaxed from the improved energy flow in the body. They may yawn, or their nose will start to drip, or their eyes will grow heavy and they’ll get very sleepy. Those are all signs that the needles are doing their work.
Carrie normally starts with a series of three to four acupuncture treatments, spaced about one to two weeks apart. Typically, there is improvement right away following an acupuncture treatment. Sometimes, however, especially with chronic issues like arthritis that have been developing for awhile, it can take a few treatments before results are seen. That’s why Carrie likes to space them out to start with and see how things go from treatment to treatment. Eventually she can do treatments less frequently, like once every two or three weeks. Many animals get to a point where they only need a treatment once every six months just to keep things balanced and healthy.
Carrie wants to do one more acupuncture point to treat Loki’s anxiety. There’s a point right behind the ears called An Shen, which translates to “calming the shen.” In Chinese medicine, the Shen is the mind. This is one of the best points on the body to address anxiety issues.
As Carrie explains, you can even do acupressure at home on this spot. She also uses it for animals who are coming out of anesthesia after surgery, as it can assist the recovery process.
Loki will sit with his needles in and relax with his mom for about 20 minutes. And that’s an acupuncture treatment!