Dr. Dee Thornell (DVM '81) returned to campus this past week to address the class of 2022, pass on some wisdom, and reminisce on her time as a student at MSU. She also was honored at the CVM Awards Ceremony, winning the Distinguished Alumni – Practitioner Award. This provided the perfect opportunity to talk with her about her time as a student and the experiences she’s had since graduating—of which there have been many!
Thornell moved to Alaska in 1982, and for the first few months of her time there, she worked out of a pickup truck. She then moved her practice to a feed store, opening one of Alaska’s most advanced veterinary clinics, complete with a team of 15 employees. One of her clients happened to work in film and TV, and before she knew it, Thornell was the star of her own show, “Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet.” Since the show finished up after its two-season run, Thornell enjoys serving the community in Alaska that she has now been a part of for 40 years.
What does it mean to you to be honored at the College’s award ceremony and to be the commencement speaker for 2022?
I am honored, and all the professors that trained me and the Deans that made it possible should feel the same!
What initially drew you to veterinary medicine?
I actually wanted to be a biochemical engineer with a neurophysiology degree, but my only brother was killed in Vietnam, and he always wanted to be a “vet.” He was my dad’s only son. I promised my dad I would try at least once. Everyone getting a diploma this year probably went through the high school counselors that say how difficult it is to get into veterinary school, and basically, I was told I had an ice cube’s chance in hell to be accepted. I knew it was going to be a challenge, and I applied knowing the odds.
What do you remember most about your time as an MSU student?
My first shock was getting an [admissions] interview. I lived in Akers Hall with a lot of pre-vet students and friends, and everyone knew when the vet school sent out the letters. I watched all my friends open their mailboxes and find the letter that basically said, “sorry about your luck, trucker.” I was the last to open my mailbox and found a large manila envelope saying “congratulations.” It was surreal.
What initially brought you to Alaska?
I came to Alaska because I did a report for a high school project on it. I was fascinated by Alaska. I did the research on the weather—no blowing snow, it’s a dry snow. The living conditions are made to deal with the weather comfortably. I was not fond of having snow come at me horizontally going about 60 miles per hour—Michigan!
How did practicing veterinary medicine out of a pickup truck work?
I wanted to see and experience the land and the people (and the weather) to make sure I made the right move. So, I started as a traveling veterinarian. I went to villages and small towns that needed pet population control. The standards of practice were based on the availability of veterinarians in the area; I basically made the standards of medicine in remote areas.
Yes, I have spayed and neutered animals using church pews as my surgical table, on my knees, with a kerosene lamp as my surgery light. Yes, I kind of stretched the envelope of my diploma. I kept everything as sterile as possible, and the patients all did great! Plus, I was able to stay with locals, eat great food, and hear their stories.
In Anderson, Alaska, my contact that set up my appointments set me up in the Anderson Lions Club, AKA the local bar. I did spays and neuters on the pool table while the owners sat at the bar and had their favorite beverage! I forbid them to smoke. I found my first cat cryptorchid on that table. Excellent training!
I would get done at 10:00 p.m.–11:00 p.m. and get in the truck and head to Fairbanks, which was 100 miles away. I have a bit of a lead foot, and these are open roads. So around 12:00 a.m., I see the lights of a patrol car. My state trooper, who has lots of animals, walked up and said, “Dr. Dee, you were speeding.” I was expecting a $100 ticket. Instead, he calmly said, “I didn’t get a chance today to get my dog spayed. Next time you’re here, can you make that happen?” I said “of course,” and he told me he was letting me off with a warning. That was a free spay. These are the things they didn’t teach me in vet school!
What did you enjoy most about working on your TV show?
Sharing my life with folks across the world.
What is taking up most of your time these days?
Seeing pets and folks that I have lived with for 40 years.
Is your current career exactly what you thought you'd be doing while you were in vet school?
I’m using the skills I have developed and the research I have studied, but there is another side of patient care that they didn’t necessarily teach me in vet school, and it has to do with interpersonal communication skills. I have to bring the whole family in and ask myself, “How do I motivate this family to participate?” It can be exhausting at times, but throughout my experiences, I’ve found successful techniques that allow me to have “coaching sessions” with pet parents. I am now trying to make educational YouTube videos to help others in the field with this challenge, so I am using my experience to reach hundreds of people instead of five per week.
What do you like to do in your free time?
The best answer is “What don’t I do?” My clients and friends who know me well come in and say, “What did Wonder Woman do lately?” Not too long ago, I personally trained a pair of Friesian horses, and we won the Parada del Sol Parade, which is one of the largest carriage parades in the world. I teach 4-H and won the Leader of the Year Award. I also recently took gourmet cooking classes. On top of that, I run a business and have a family. Oh, and I always correct my friends: Wonder Woman is probably a great lady, but I am a Spartan!
A Few Extra Questions: MSU Edition!
Favorite teacher or professor?
That’s a tough one! I had several. My favorite in vet school was Don Howard.
Surgery. I have a fond memory of my first day in surgery. I said “oops” while finding an ovary. My teacher said, “I beg your pardon! We don’t say ‘oops’ in surgery!” Humor is the oil in the engine of life.
Most challenging class?
Anatomy. It wasn’t the subject, it was the formalin. I had terrible headaches after lab!
Favorite spot on campus?
The pool! I would do laps at 5:00 a.m. And of course, the local watering holes at night.
What lesson-learned would you share with today’s veterinary students?
Our College has a veterinary school that attracts the smartest individuals across the world. Never forget that!