Name: Gary Sturgis Town: Essex Job: House-call veterinarian
Gary Sturgis lives on his own terms. The 61-year-old house-call veterinarian uses index cards to record details about his clients and the medical history of their pets. He owns a flip phone, doesn't use email or text, and likes being off the grid. "I used to have an answering machine, voicemail and a cellphone," Sturgis said. But with his messages dispersed, he ended up missing some — a concern for a vet who builds long-term relationships with his clients and their animals.
These days, the only way for pet owners to contact Sturgis is by leaving a message on his answering machine. Somehow, the wildlife photography enthusiast manages to return every call and turn up with his green travel bag.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Sturgis moved to the Green Mountain State in 1985 when his wife, a family physician, got into the residency program at the University of Vermont. His love for the region had begun much earlier, when he was in seventh grade. He spent several summers in Vermont after his older sister moved there with her husband.
"I wanted to come to Vermont and work in the dairy practice," Sturgis said. He was among the first batch of graduates from the veterinary school at Tufts University, now known as the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Sturgis didn't stay long in the dairy practice, because of the federal government's whole-herd buyout — farmers were paid to go out of business as a way to eliminate the country's milk surplus. He loved teaching as an assistant professor at Vermont Technical College, he said, but missed practicing and soon found himself back in the field. After about seven years of working at South Burlington's Green Mountain Animal Hospital he decided, in 1995, to practice exclusively as a house-call vet.
Sturgis took time to talk with us about his human and furry clients.
SEVEN DAYS: Why would pet owners call a house-call vet instead of going to an animal hospital?
GARY STURGIS: Some older people don't want to get out during winter. I have a lot of clients that say their cats don't travel well. I have clients whose dog loves to go out. So they bring their dog to a vet hospital, and I do the cat at home. Sometimes [I go] for end-of-life care. I get some clients that have always used this other vet, and they're very happy with them, [but] I'd come in as more things start to happen. Maybe a couple of house calls can keep the animal from going back in as often.
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Dr. Sturgis' travel bag
SD: What's in your bag?
GS: A stethoscope, some syringes, a few vials of medication, gauze pads and little alcohol bottles, cotton balls, and a tourniquet for helping me get blood. I used to have treats for cats to try to distract them a little bit. But dogs would come over and dive into my bag because they could smell the treats. So I had to stop.
SD: What's a typical day like for you?
GS: Most of what I do is health checkups. If it's one or two cats and they are healthy, it'd be 20 minutes, sometimes an hour. You vaccinate them. Chat a little bit and then go on to the next one. I don't do a lot of in-house tests. I do some heartworm tests [and] tests for Lyme disease. Mostly I send it out to a reference lab.
If I have an animal that needs a hospital, I refer it. I sometimes pick a hospital where I think a client will like them. Every hospital has a different personality, and clients do, too. So sometimes I try to pick based on that. And other times, I know there's a certain vet good at something, and I can refer to them.
An important, but not a huge, part of my job is home euthanasia. Usually, it goes very peacefully. Sometimes it can take 20 minutes. A couple of times it took an hour and a half. Sometimes there's a lot of people and there are candles and people have readings that they do. I try to make sure I have plenty of time.
SD: How many house calls do you make each day, and how far are you willing to travel?
GS: I average five or six. In spring and summer, some days, I'll have nine or 10. That makes me so busy that I can't return phone calls to schedule the next day. So I almost automatically have a day off to make phone calls.
Most clients are in Chittenden County, [but] I have clients [as distant as] Fairfax. I try to shrink my area, and that helps a lot. Even if I was seeing as many appointments, I wasn't driving as far. I need to be slow enough [at each house call] so that I can be on top of it.
SD: Why are you busiest during spring and summer?
GS: Dogs have been cooped up all winter, and, in the spring and summer, they start going out. They start tearing their toenails, spraining their ankles, getting quilled by porcupines. A lot of things start happening just because of recreation. Also, I'm the assistant coach for the girls' rugby team at Essex High School. So, March, April and May, I try to finish early so I can go for practice.
SD: Do you take your cat, Songa, to a vet when he's ill?
GS: If he gets sick, the first thing I try to do is a blood test. But if I'm not sure what's going on, and I'm starting to think he needs a vet, then I'd take him. The good thing about my cat is, he reminds me all the time how scared you are when your pet is sick. I don't forget that. And I think that has helped me become a better vet.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Mobile DVM"