Dr. Mary Whitney: “It has to be your calling"

David Briggs
Mary Whitney named her dog Biko after South African civil rights activist Stephen Biko.  
07/31/2019

Like many young girls enamored with animals, Mary Whitney wanted to become a veterinarian. Unlike most girls, she experienced, as she says, “the true calling.” Without that, she firmly believes no one should ever enter the demanding profession. “It has to be the only thing you can ever imagine yourself doing,” she says.

Mary grew up in central Florida, the youngest of six children. Her father was head of the art department at Stetson University, where she later earned her undergraduate degree and her mother taught art and science. Ever since she could remember, she was “crazy about horses,” and for many years she begged her parents for a horse. They finally relented when she was in high school. Riding at that time of her life “kept me out of a lot of trouble,” she recalls.

Fueling her self-described horse “obsession” were summers in Martha’s Vineyard. Every year, from the time she was 1 and until she was 26, the family packed themselves into the car with “smelly egg sandwiches in the picnic basket” for the yearly Massachusetts jaunt. 

Her first real hands-on experiences with horses came at age 12, as a junior equestrian student at Misty Meadows Horse Farm. She learned not only how to ride, but all about horse anatomy and equipment. Later she mucked stalls and led trail rides in exchange for riding lessons. Learning all about horses “changed my life,” she says, yet by the time she was a teenager she concluded that she was never going to be a rider jumper. Next-best alternative: a veterinarian.

Mary is and has always been an extremely focused person. As soon as she saw veterinary school in her future, she visited one nearby to gather information. Soon she was a biology major taking chemistry classes and spending time in clinics observing doctors and taking care of kennels.

After graduating from college and the University of Florida’s veterinary school she passed over her desire to join the Peace Corps in Africa because of the AIDS crisis. Still ready for adventure, she answered a magazine ad for a job in Washington State, said goodbye to her horse, five goats and cats, and set off in her truck for her first real job. 

She was headed to another life-changing experience: “the best job ever, with a true mentor who did everything from orthopedics to other surgeries” on both large and small animals. He stood by her side when she needed assistance and was available night and day for help and questions. She reflects that young veterinarians these days don’t have the opportunity for such a broad experience, usually going to large hospitals and only learning one or two things. She believes a doctor’s first job out of veterinary school is their most vital experience. “It makes or breaks you,” she says.

Her time in Washington sparked a desired to carry on in the same way as her mentor, which is why her Point Reyes Animal Hospital has been successful in Point Reyes Station for 21 years. (She first worked part time for Dr. Robert Fisher, and then bought the practice in 2002.)

Running a rural clinic is hardly a walk in the park. Yes, you get to hang out with animals, and hopefully heal them and relieve their suffering. But the profession requires long, stressful days and little time off. You have to love your patients, and preferably their owners too, honor the work and find it continually challenging and interesting. You must also face the inevitable sadness that comes with euthanizing a terminally ill, cherished creature.

Working in a rural setting by herself brings additional challenges not faced by urban vets. She must be skilled in procedures that urban veterinarians most often refer to specialists; Mary performs surgeries, is her own anesthesiologist and is skilled in dentistry. That’s not to say she always relies on her own expertise. She has a strong network of specialists in disciplines like internal medicine, surgery, oncology, dermatology, cardiology and orthopedics whom she calls upon for advice or verification when she wants to make sure she is doing all that is needed, and doing it correctly. 

There are few veterinarians around to relieve Mary of her workload when she needs time off, and she cannot offer the salaries and benefits that large practices can. Attracting technicians is also difficult, and Mary is quick to express appreciation for the capable staff she now employs. “People don’t stay at their jobs like they used to,” she says. Before “corporate veterinary practices” became the norm, she had numerous responses to ads she placed for assistants; now, sometimes she receives none.

Yet some relief recently arrived in the person of Dr. Starfinder Stanley, a Sebastopol doctor who will work Tuesdays and fill in other days when needed. A practitioner of integrative medicine, he combines Eastern and Western modalities, offers acupuncture and Chinese herbs, and performs surgery and dentistry. “He spends a lot of time with clients and explains everything like I do,” Mary says.  

Like many people in all branches of medicine, Mary enjoys the intellectual exercise of diagnosis. “I like challenges and solving the mystery of what’s wrong,” she says. “I am a detective and diagnostics is my forte.” This skill obviously involves a thorough examination of the patient, but sometimes requires “pulling the history out of the owner and listening carefully,” as owners often inadvertently reveal what they consider unimportant information that turns out to be significant.

In fact, Mary finds the people she sees in her practice are often more challenging than the animals. Sometimes owners delay bringing in a sick pet because they worry about the cost, but what disturbs her most are those who delay because “they listen to Dr. Google or their neighbor or the guy in the pet store and between them they form an opinion. Sometimes, especially with cats, who hide their illnesses better than dogs. It is too late,” she says.

As she sees it, many veterinarians are compassionate, obsessive, Type A personalities such as herself who take their work home and ruminate on whether they got it right. It’s part of the reason why “veterinarians have the highest suicide rate of any profession,” she says. This lamentable fact, though little known by the public, is the subject of numerous journal articles and online discussions. “Vets always blame themselves when a pet doesn’t make it,” she says. We feel so responsible. You have no idea how much veterinarians care. We go home and
worry.”

The relatively recent rise of the internet has also contributed to suicide and depression in veterinarians. A doctor’s reputation can be ruined by negative reviews that, whether or not truthful, can cause anguish to a doctor with no recourse to counteract the statements. (No worries for Mary: her Yelp reviews are excellent.)

Besides being vulnerable to depression and compassion fatigue, young veterinarians are often saddled with huge debts from their education. Despite what many believe, veterinarians do not make huge salaries relative to other medical professionals.

Mary is fortunate to have what some veterinarians don’t—a supportive and caring community. “I am extremely grateful to this community,” she says. “I have so much love coming at me. When I first arrived, in 1996, I felt like I had found my people.” Her stability in the community is enhanced by the fact that she owns the land and building she occupies. This was made possible many years ago by community members who loaned her the funds to purchase both the practice and the property. And at the time, she was seven months pregnant with her second child, and her supporters helped with childcare, too. 

Besides her passion for her challenging profession, Mary is bolstered by her marriage of 26 years to Dave Whitney, a local music teacher, and her now almost-grown children. She has her own pets—a golden retriever, two cats and two Arabian horses. She is an avid swimmer in Tomales Bay and then, of course, there is horseback riding on the trails in West Marin. 

 

Ellen Shehadeh has written for the Light, the West Marin Citizen, The Pacific Sun and the North Bay Bohemian, and interviewed artists and authors on KWMR, for 14 years. She lives in Inverness.