Dr. Graciela Guzman’s eyes filled with tears as she explained what motivated her to volunteer at the third annual Pet Wellness Clinic in mid-October sponsored by PetAid Colorado, Dumb Friends League and Colorado State University in a northeast Denver neighborhood.
“I grew up down the street, my elementary school is right there,” said the CSU veterinary alumna, pointing down 48th Avenue. “To be able to come back and help the families here means so much to me. I know a lot of the kids here are the impetus for their family to get a dog.”
She sees her younger self in the wide eyes and the arms full of fluff, remembering how she pestered her own mother for a dog until her mom finally brought home a puppy in her coat pocket on the bus.
“For me, it was the nice veterinarian who called to talk to me when our dog was sick that got me thinking, ‘I could do that.’ Plus, my uncle telling me girls couldn’t be veterinarians.” Guzman proved him wrong, earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University in 2003 and a master’s degree in public health from the University of Colorado this year. She practices as a veterinarian in Lakewood.
Guzman’s passion for animals, her concern for public health, and a powerful connection to place came together, along with 14 CSU veterinary students and many Spanish-speaking volunteers, on Oct. 15 at the free veterinary clinic at Focus Points Family Resource Center. The center is an anchor of the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, adjacent to the Denver Coliseum and grounds of the National Western Stock Show.
Veterinary care and community outreach will be an integral part of the CSU presence as the new National Western Center takes shape in the next decade. The university’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences plans to partner with PetAid Colorado at the redeveloped center to run a veterinary hospital offering discounted preventive services, such as vaccinations and spay/neuter surgeries, for the pets of local residents in need of financial and other assistance.
At the recent clinic, volunteers Guzman, Dr. Caroline Cantner and Dr. Casara Andre examined and vaccinated dogs and cats, while veterinarians with the Dumb Friends League spayed and neutered animals in their Meow Mobile and Lulu Mobile clinics.
Marlene Talavera juggled three “Chorkie” puppies, Ollie, Olaf and Chewie, black, blond and motley Chihuahua-Yorkie mixes, while asking Guzman about what to feed the 10-week-old pups. “There’s no food pyramid for dogs,” said Talavera, as Guzman showed a student how to shoot de-worming medicine into a wiggly puppy’s mouth.
Talavera listened intently to a bilingual student presentation about pet health, and as she checked out of the free clinic, she marveled at the service. “I loved it, everybody gave me a whole lot of information and I felt so comfortable here. All the people were so welcoming,” she said.
Angelita Mendoza and her 14-year-old daughter Ashley Cervantes brought their month-old puppies along with their poodle parents, Muñeca and Gordo. “I like for them to have their vaccines,” she said. “You can’t have dogs without vaccinating them.”
For Courtney Blackmon, a first-year CSU vet student, the clinic offered contact with real-world patients and was a chance to pick the brains of young practicing veterinarians like Dr. Casara Andre, who earned her DVM in 2009 from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and spent four years in the Army Veterinary Corps.
After Andre examined Mendoza’s little white fuzzballs, Blackmon peppered Andre with questions about coping with the pressures of vet school, finding a mentor, communicating with clients, and working overseas.
Andre’s advice: “Find an aspect of fun in veterinary medicine, don’t feel like you have to volunteer every weekend. Be protective of your time. And learn how to listen. Our job as veterinarians is to connect with the owners. If we can’t convince them that we care, we’re never going to see that dog again.”
Melissa Pinedo-Chavez and her daughter Yazmin said they would be back with their Boxer, Cholo. They weren’t even sure how old he was – Guzman estimated between 3 and 4 years old – having acquired the friendly dog nearly a year ago from a friend who found the purebred abandoned and tied to a tree.
They had been looking for a dog, “but we were being picky,” said Pinedo-Chavez, who wanted a smaller dog. “But Yazmin and Cholo are a match made in heaven. He is wonderful and I’ve come to love him, too.”
Yazmin was thrilled that Cholo passed his exam: “He got a five out of five!” Her mom was grateful to have access to the free clinic. “This event is beyond what a person could ever imagine. Vet care is expensive, but his health is important to us. He is part of the family now,” she said.
She learned about the service from her mother-in-law, Martha Martiñon, who brought her tiny but slightly overweight Chihuhaua, Vaquita, for a checkup. “I like for her to be healthy,” said Martiñon, who takes computer and nutrition classes at Focus Points.
In the Dumb Friends League’s mobile clinics, Dr. Jeff Fankhauser and Dr. Camila Vieira performed a steady flow of spays and neuters, free to the community thanks to Dumb Friends League donors.
“We are happy to be a part of this. It’s a collaborative effort, and it’s so nice to have the students here,” said Kristine Clay, mobile clinic coordinator. “And the burritos were excellent, make sure you mention that.” The food was provided by Comal, a new food incubator kitchen that serves neighborhood micro-entrepreneurs.
“I really like the community outreach component of veterinary medicine,” said CSU student Bianca Alva, as she watched Dr. Camila Vieira suture the incision on a dog she had just spayed in the mobile clinic. Alva is a third-year vet student who plans to pursue a surgical residency and work in public health. “I come from a similar community in New Mexico, so this really touches my heart,” she said.
Dr. Danielle Straatmann, director of International Student Experiences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, organized the event, gathering veterinary and student volunteers, and coordinating with partners. Boehringer Ingelheim donated vaccines.
The day-long clinic saw more than 100 pets, and conducted 39 spay and neuter surgeries.