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Practice makes perfect: Dr. Sue Wylegala '88 reflects on career

Dr. Sue Wylegala-by Sherrie Negrea

The poodle arrived at the Cornell Companion Animal Hospital with the tell-tale signs of failing adrenal glands: vomiting, lethargy and lack of appetite. But for Dr. Susan Wylegala ’88, figuring out why the dog was sick was a lesson she would never forget years after graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine.

On that spring afternoon in 1988, the faculty who normally supervised the clinic were all leaving for an awards banquet shortly after the dog arrived. Before Dr. William Hornbuckle, now a professor emeritus, left Wylegala in charge of the case, however, he guided her toward a diagnosis.

Wylegala successfully treated the dog with fluids and medication and later kept in touch with his owners, who sent her cards and gifts, for the next five years. "The experience gave me the confidence that I could do this, that I could interact with a client, and take a case from start to finish," Wylegala recalls. "And it solidified that I was as ready as I would ever be to graduate and actually start practicing medicine."

As she pursued her career and eventually purchased her own practice outside Buffalo, Wylegala says the ability to communicate effectively with clients emerged as one of the most pressing needs in running a veterinary practice. For Wylegala, learning those skills began with her experience working in the clinic at Cornell's animal hospital.

"Veterinary medicine has become much more customer-oriented," she says. "You not only have to practice quality medicine, but you also have to be able to communicate your recommendations to the client, and I think we've become more and more aware of how important those communications skills are."

Growing up in Buffalo, Wylegala always knew she wanted to become a veterinarian. Her passion for animals was developed after her father, an avid outdoorsman, would take her family to visit his cabin in the woods in Wyoming County.

Wylegala finalized her decision to work with animals in high school, when she volunteered at the Buffalo Zoo and at the University of Buffalo's animal research department. After earning a degree in microbiology from the University of Rochester, Wylegala was finally ready to apply to Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. But there was one obstacle in her way: she wasn't accepted.

"I was persistent," she recalls. "I reapplied three times before I got in, and the third time was the charm."Dr. Sue Wylegala

After graduating, Wylegala returned to her home town and began working as an associate at the Cheektowaga Veterinary Hospital just east of Buffalo. When the owner of the practice decided to sell the business in 2005, Wylegala purchased it.

Since then, the number of clients and pets the practice serves has increased as Wylegala added an array of new services, including cardiac and abdominal ultrasound and digital radiology. To improve the practice, Wylegala also hired a veterinary practice consultant to advise her on strategies to enhance the client experience and the employee culture.Sue Wylegala with cat

"I don't think veterinarians are inherently great business people," she says. "That's always been a challenge for me, but I really enjoy being able to make changes that I see are needed to enhance the practice."

Last January, Wylegala was elected president of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, the organization that leads, educates and protects the veterinary profession in New York State. Since 2013, she has also been a member of the College of Veterinary Medicine Dean's Advisory Council.

Reflecting back on her career, Wylegala believes her involvement in veterinary medicine organizations has played a critical role in her professional development. "I think the relationships that I have formed with veterinarians across the state has made me a better veterinarian," she says. "We're all having the same issues. And it makes you feel less isolated."