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Portrait of a Graduate

Tovah Dorsey, DVM ’04

A healthy risk taker who embraces challenges, demonstrates initiative, and is resourceful and resilient.

SPSG was a time of special growth and self-determination when I learned the benefit of paving my own way. It has been crucial in my daily professional life to show initiative and take risks that have the potential to determine a pet’s fate.

When Tovah Dorsey was a little girl, her dad used to bring home some unusual gifts—starting with a turtle he rescued crossing the highway. One by one, a menagerie of furry, feathered, and scaly creatures followed—usually when his coworkers’ kids decided they no longer wanted them.

Tovah’s love affair with animals began shortly after her sixth birthday, when her family adopted a chocolate Lab she named Penny Daisy Dorsey. In high school, her SPSG classmates voted her “Most Likely to Star in an Animal Planet Show.” (We’re still hoping to see that happen.)

“Every day is a challenge that I welcome with open arms despite the uncertainties,” says the Emergency & Critical Care Resident at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, who lives in Millford, Mass., with her fiance, dog, and cat. Her long-term goals include going into private practice as a criticalist.

Criticalists are a fairly new and rare specialty that requires four years of additional education after veterinary school. Tovah got her DVM in 2012 from the Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, where she did an internship in small animal surgery. Now she’s in the third and final year of her Tufts residency, which includes intensive training on the most up-to-date techniques for diagnosing and treating life-threatening illnesses.

“In human terms, I am like an emergency room physician combined with a pediatric interventionist,” she says, explaining that treating animals is similar to treating babies and toddlers, because they can’t use words to communicate what’s wrong. Criticalists perform some surgeries and CPR as needed—and they also provide long-term care for patients in the ICU.

If you’re picturing “Grey’s Anatomy” for animals, you’re not far off. Tovah’s job is high-adrenaline and high-stakes—and she pulls plenty of overnight shifts with her fellow doctors. Much of the excitement comes from waiting to see who (or what) walks through the double doors. “On an average shift, we might have 60 animals in our care—both small and exotic—ranging from mild to very severe,” she says. “We see dogs, cats, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets, reptiles, a fair amount of birds, and even a giraffe or two.” (The giraffes come from small local zoos and stay on the “large animal” side of the hospital.)

So what’s the most exotic animal Tovah has treated so far? “A wallaby,” she says.

Working in critical care requires a supreme amount of self confidence, which Tovah says she cultivated at SPSG by taking on leadership roles in the Black Awareness Club, Jewish Awareness Club, Community Alliance, Peer Education, and other extracurriculars. She also played volleyball and basketball.

“SPSG was a time of special growth and self-determination when I learned the benefit of paving my own way,” she says. “It has been crucial in my daily professional life to show initiative and take risks that have the potential to determine a pet’s fate.”

While the ER is a frenetic and occasionally even dangerous place, Tovah has learned the art of keeping calm and helping others do the same by treating them with dignity and compassion.

“I’m often faced with raw emotion—whether sadness or anger— but I never let that impact the care I provide to my patients. I’m not only an advocate for the animals, but also serve as a teacher, mediator, and confidant for owners,” she says.

That means being up front about the realities of their pet’s condition, counseling them about their options, and comforting them throughout the decision-making process.

“If someone decides they’re emotionally or financially unable to move forward, we’ll never judge them for that,” she says. “There are lots of factors involved and we understand people need to make the best choice for their pets and their families.”

That said, Tovah prides herself on being resourceful—doing everything within her power to save an animal, despite the prohibitive cost of health care. And she regularly reminds owners they’ve done the best they can, too.

“In some critical situations, you just don’t have enough time to get an animal to the hospital. There’s no fault in missing some small symptom,” she says. “Other times the injury or illness is just so severe, there’s nothing the owner could have done to change the outcome.”

Taking on the emotions and idiosyncrasies of every client in rapid succession is no small feat. Most days, resilience wins. But occasionally even veterinary superheroes break down.

“That’s when we count on our colleagues to pull us through,” says Tovah, noting that ER doctors simply “get each other” and understand why certain losses get under their (otherwise thick) skin. “Sometimes just knowing the medicine behind the most difficult cases helps us support and care for each other.”

Tovah enjoyed similar camaraderie at SPSG, where she says the Class of 2004 bonded over everyday girl stuff—and big social issues, including racial justice. Some of her fondest memories include working with her peers to facilitate King’s Vision Day and the AIMS Student Diversity Conference.

“Our class really stuck together and fought for things we believed in,” she says. “Just in the time we were there, we really moved our school forward.”

Since then, Tovah has established a mentoring program for young students to expose them to the veterinary field, while fostering positive human/animal relationships. She’s also a bit of a pioneer in the profession itself, where young females are becoming the new majority, even though white males still hold most of the leadership positions.

“Sometimes owners will still ask me if I’m the lead on their pet’s case or if I’ll be performing their surgery,” she says. “So we still have a ways to go. But as students at SPSG, we were taught to go out into the world and leave a positive mark. This is one way I’m making mine.”

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