Video produced by American Humane
Patti Canchola, D.V.M., ’90
Dr. Patti Canchola was named the 2017 American Humane Hero Veterinarian at a gala celebration in Los Angeles in September. The glitz of Hollywood is a far cry from her day-to-day work as the shelter veterinarian at Pueblo Animal Services in southern Colorado.
“When I was young, I was always bringing animals home. If I found a stray animal on the way to school, I would run back with the animal, drop it off at my house, and run back to school. My parents came into the kitchen finding everything from kittens to dogs of every shape and size. My dad would also play with me, lining up my stuffed animals to be my patients one at a time to see me, the doctor. They tease me that the most important part of the play-visits was paying the bill with the receptionist. My dad noted that I wanted to be the cashier and doctor all at the same time!
“I was probably 8-9 years old when I found my puppy’s tooth in the carpet. I immediately thought I could cash in big time with the tooth fairy. My father knew what I was up to and planned the perfect surprise for the next morning. Bright and early the following morning I reach under my pillow to find A BAG OF PUPPY MILKBONES! He says the look on my face was priceless and proceeded to remind me that it wasn’t my tooth.
“In high school, I volunteered at Pueblo Small Animal Clinic for Dr. Bill Krause. I did almost everything around that clinic, from changing out bedding in the cages to help Dr. Krause in surgery. I remember spending many wonderful hours in his clinic. Dr. Krause was a remarkable mentor in my life. I would watch him select anesthesia drugs or perform surgery, and simply think ‘Wow, how does he do that?’ It seemed like magic. But he took the time to teach me, showing me bacteria through the microscope or the vessel he was ligating in a spay procedure. Seeing my childhood interests come to life in front of me cemented my decision to be a veterinarian.
“From day one of veterinary school, you immediately start to form friendships. And before you know it, you’re a family. There is a feeling that you are in this together and you will get through this together. CSU as an institution goes above and beyond the expected standard by investing in their students. Professors make you feel like you are the only student, helping you adapt your learning style to the content at hand. And we really are a reflection of that investment. I love seeing how my veterinary colleagues are succeeding in all aspects of veterinary medicine around the country.
“The one thing I would tell incoming veterinary student is that it is totally doable. Nothing to be afraid of. I know you will be confused and scared; I was too. You have to reach out to professors and reach out to fellow students, asking for help whenever you need it. And don’t forget to have fun. Don’t be stuck in your books! It will reenergize you.”
First days on the job
“Once I graduated from veterinary school, I immediately began working in a small animal practice in Yankton, South Dakota, a rural community. My clinical mentor, Dr. Janet Messner, was wonderful and gave me a real sense of confidence. When she went on vacation a few weeks after I started she left me completely in charge of the clinic.
“My first emergency was a cat with an abscess. This is a common problem in cats, but I was blanking on all of the information I had learned just months before. I called my classmate Dr. Kari Swenson, who talked me down and reminded me that most abscesses need to be flushed and that I should think about placing the cat on antibiotics.
“Once I got through that first bump, the rest of my solo stint was smooth. Being able to handle all of the cases made me feel like a real veterinarian. To this day Dr. Swenson and I still laugh about this little adventure.”
“Although I adored the clinic in South Dakota, I felt a deep need to go back to Pueblo. Every time I would be in Colorado for a few days, I would get a textbook case of homesickness, looking for ways to get back. Once I made the trip home for good, I worked at a variety of clinics, eventually purchasing a practice where I worked. At first, the practice was quite prosperous, until the economic downturn in 2008. At that time there were three veterinary clinics in Pueblo West. I had just built a new hospital and (long story short) the other clinics survived and mine didn’t. The loan I had on the clinic was sold and the terms changed rapidly. Sadly I was forced to close my hospital.
“Serendipitously, around this time, Pueblo Animal Services was looking for a full-time veterinarian. I knew the director from helping them over the years with certain medical cases. I asked for the interview and the rest is history.”
Answering the call of shelter medicine
“A lot of my colleagues would agree that they couldn’t do what I do. And I couldn’t do what a lot of my colleagues do. I had to learn how to take care of myself most of all, how to strike the balance. Staying centered and calm takes a lot of prayer and reflection. After a hard day, it is so important to be able to process everything you’ve seen and everyone you have interacted with. Compassion fatigue is a hot topic in our profession and I recognize this every single day. My team is very small and we are all going through the same ups and downs so it is also crucial that I check in with them and say ‘how you doing?’ My family understands this and lets me talk about my day even if it involves tears without expecting me to have a great answer to ‘How was your day?’
“When it comes down to it, my passion is helping someone keep their pets. I think about how I would feel if I lost my job and had to give up my animals. Those thoughts break my heart. To help, I opened a low-cost veterinary clinic in Pueblo. St. Martin’s Well Pet Clinic is a Saturday only reduced-fee wellness center that provides basic preventative medicine. We would closely with an animal welfare group that provides us with small grants that allow us to provide free rabies vaccinations to pets in household where there is little to no money. Shortly after opening St. Martin’s I started The Amazin’ Amos Pet Pantry that provides food free of charge to income qualifying families in Pueblo and surrounding areas.
“Eventually, I would love to convert our clinic into a non-profit entity. That would allow us to apply for grants for dental equipment and a portable anesthesia machine. Dental disease is such a prevalent issue in our community, sometimes getting so bad that the animal can no longer eat. I see it coming down to client education and affordability. If a client does not have the money for a $10 rabies vaccine, there is no way we can expect them to pay for a full dental. In these situations, I ask myself how can I make the pet comfortable and how can I improve their quality of life.”
Hearts, stars and smiley faces
“Many things make me proud to be a shelter veterinarian. But one story stands out. When we spay animals, we have a little fun with the tattoo that lets others know that they are sterilized. We use different colors and tattoo unique shapes like hearts, stars, and smiley faces. I have spayed or neutered 29,000 animals since I started at Pueblo Animal Services, so there are a lot of funny tattoos out there. I was once at Wal-Mart getting my oil changed and was chatting with a gentleman with a service dog. When the dog rolled onto her belly, I saw her little heart tattoo. That was a special moment for me. It is in the little things that you make a difference.”