Most of us have defining moments in our lives that, to the casual observer, may not appear to be all that significant, so picking up the local newspaper one day back in 1986 would not necessarily seem like a truly life changing decision. But it was.
It was then that I first read of a veterinarian, Dr. Tom Vice, described by the columnist in such glowing terms I figured that was all the recommendation I needed. I was new to the area, having recently relocated to San Antonio from Dallas, I had a young dog due for her annual shots, and Broadway Animal Hospital, as it was then known, was conveniently close to home; it was a pretty easy decision, even for an agonizer like me. I could not have anticipated that this simple act would mark the beginning of a 28-year relationship with one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever known.
It was not just about how he treated animals or how he treated pet owners with the utmost respect. Our own physicians should be as considerate, informed, and informative about the complex workings of medicine. Vice has set the bar high for what we should expect from any doctor, whether their practice caters to pets or people.
Dr. Vice also set another high standard for how we should live our lives – especially when the status quo is upset by the intrusion over the years of cancer diagnoses and other serious ailments that might, or most likely, have sent a lesser man into retirement or at least somewhere quiet.
Not Dr. Vice. On a recent Saturday morning, the clinic waiting room was chock-full of patients. A graying labrador, a nervous young cat, an array of fantastically colored birds, and a lone ferret rounded out the mix. They may all have had different reasons for their visit but their goals were the same – everyone was there to see Dr. Vice, 80, who still shows no signs of giving up what he says he loves best. Dr. Vice sold his practice to Dr. Pat Richardson in 2006, at which time he was to stay on as a consultant at the renamed Broadway Oaks Animal Hospital for just three years.
It's now 2014. You do the math.
Dr. Vice's career is marked by so many accolades it would require a sequel or trilogy just to begin to cover how much one man has done in one lifetime. Before private practice, he was the on-site vet at Kelly Air Force Base, where he first met Betty, his wife of 58 years. He later served as the staff vet for the San Antonio Zoo, an adjunct professor at Texas A&M University, a consultant at Trinity University, and was awarded such honors as the Companion Animal Practitioner of the Year for the State of Texas and the Non-Traditional Species Practitioner by the Texas Veterinary Medical Association. He is a widely acclaimed avian expert who many other vets send their winged patients to see because he is that good. Along with that, his free time still dedicated to a multitude of similar pursuits, as well as a long-standing weekly pet segment on KSAT 12, a segment he tapes most Tuesdays at around 6 a.m. or so, before going in to work.
Yep. I feel guilty, too.
His lifetime interest in animal welfare activities has also directly contributed to the welfare of our city and its no-kill efforts.
Gavin Nichols, Director of Grants and Programs for the San Antonio Area Foundation, has worked alongside Dr. Vice, who serves as member of the Area Foundation's Advisory Committee specific to grants for animal services groups. Nichols reflected that as a private vet, Vice was an early adopter of no-kill methods, such as high-volume, low-cost spaying and neutering.
"He's stated numerous times that the high-volume, low-cost spay and neuter clinics actually do a great service not only to the city but also to the vet community, because private vets actually don't make any profit on spay and neuter surgeries," Nichols said. "And he recognizes that saving dogs and cats in the shelters provides more pets for families, hence more work for vets.”
Dr. Vice has always been a major proponent of humane education that begins early, so even young children could learn about responsible pet ownership. Our city had been burdened by the stigma of almost historic pet overpopulation numbers which is visibly pains him to talk about. I know just how proud he is to have been part of the positive change we have affected and to see how many individuals and groups stepped up to contribute to the effort.
In the nearly three decades I have known him, we have naturally shared some highs and lows in both our lives. There were the great times when he persisted in returning one of my animals to good health on more than one occasion. When I thought that all hope was gone, he knew it was not. I am sure he would have told me that there are other vets who would have done no less. That may be so, but he has always gone above and beyond what we might expect of our vet – calling to check on a sick pet at night or on a weekend, phoning in prescriptions to the 24-hour pharmacy, even treating one of my dogs at my home so she did not have to incur the additional stress of traveling to the clinic.
I am not the only client for whom he has shown this degree of kindness, simply because he knows what our pets mean to us. There are countless people and pets who echo my sentiments about someone who was more than a terrific vet.
Along the way, we have unfortunately shared sadness, like when we finally lost the first dog I brought to his office all those years ago. Last year, I again said goodbye to her first successor, a lovely dog who would only willingly get in the car if told she was going to see Dr. Vice.
I asked his wife how he dealt with the grief of these events as it is obvious how much he empathizes with all of his patients in the same situation. She told me they have both learned to accept the losses that come with his job and that he always has hope for a better tomorrow.
It's likely this same spirit of hope that has turned his own seemingly dire prognoses into four instances of remission from cancer and brought him out of a hospital bed and wheelchair in spite of surgeries, including the removal of his right scapula. Back problems that continued to plague him, but have not kept him down.
If I had not been Tom's client or friend – even if I was less irrational about my pets, your pets, or anything I think should be a pet – just hearing his story I would have been equally in awe of his commitment to his profession, his passions, and life in general.
In the end, that was what motivated me to organize a charitable fund in his name to benefit the things he had worked to improve and that are the most meaningful to him. The Dr. Thomas E. Vice Fund was founded through the San Antonio Area Foundation to provide support for their animal services grants, which are awarded each year to local organizations whose work focuses on providing a better quality of life for all animals.
I am also looking into introducing a new dynamic to the Fund with The Only Dog Project, which will speak to the needs of people like me who have lost one dog in the household and are left with another canine grieving the loss of its friend. While I am still thinking things through, this effort is something I would like to facilitate with a partnering rescue or other group with fostering opportunities, with more to follow as this idea takes shape.
Dr. Vice had an established following, or fan club, long before we ever met that represented a diverse pool of business leaders, vets, animal welfare interest groups, and a slew of folks like me. Yet, he still seemed so surprised when I approached him about starting this fund that bore his name.
This is a man who has given selflessly of his time and talent to help an extraordinary number of community organizations. A man who still attends professional veterinary seminars, reads scholarly journals for fun, and stays up-to-date on an unbelievable variety of topics. A man who takes amazing care of the ones so many of us consider family members (sometimes our favorite family members). He is also a terrific storyteller and wildlife photographer – entertaining us as we wait for lab results or the like, soothing our nerves and comforting our souls even when he could not deliver the news for which we had hoped.
Twenty-eight years ago, I thought I was lucky to have found a great vet. I did not know then what I had found was real treasure.
Featured photo: Dr. Tom Vice holds Maya, a black-headed caique belonging to receptionist and veterinary technician Candice McPartlin. Photo by Joel Williams.