The curious clinician: Ann Dwyer DVM '83

Ann Dwyer DVM '83. (photo: Dede Hatch)

If you ask Ann Dwyer DVM '83, the co-recipient of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's 2017 Salmon Award for Distinguished Alumni Service, the key to her career, she might answer: “SOAP.” No, not the stuff that lathers up your hands—but the Cornell-taught approach to problems:  Subjective and Objective observations, turning those into an Assessment, then creating a Plan. “Cornell trains all graduates to do this kind of analysis.  In reflecting back on my career, all I have done is “SOAP” many facets of being a professional,” says Dwyer. “That method applies to patients, of course, but also to things like doing research, making a speech, leading an organization, assembling a course or designing a building. This SOAP approach to life is one that I see Cornell colleagues—teachers, administrators, classmates, students and fellow graduates carry out over and over again throughout their careers.  Mine is no different.”

Dwyer is currently the co-owner of the Genesee Valley Equine Clinic in Scottsville, N.Y. and is known for her expertise in equine eye diseases, currently serving as a reviewer for Equine Veterinary Ophthalmology and has authored a number of papers and book chapters on equine ophthalmology. She received a BS in biology from Mount Holyoke College in1975 and her DVM from the College in 1983. Dwyer is a member of the AVMA, AAEP (serving as president of that organization in 2013), NYSVMS, IEOC, the Zweig Committee, and serves as vice-chair of the College’s Advisory Council. 

For Dwyer, there is “no such thing as a typical day,” in her life as an equine veterinarian and practice owner. “Some days I see herds of horses, some days I see just a few patients,” she explains. “Some days I concentrate on patient care; other days I put on my practice-owner hat and tend to taxes and budget.  Some days I am away from the practice, teaching vet students or doing work for AAEP.  Some days I seem to do a combination of all of the above activities and am up late at night tending to email.”

Equine interests

A love of horses has been a constant throughout Dwyer’s life, from taking riding lesson from her fifth grade teacher, eventing as a teen, and teaching lessons herself while a college student at Mount Holyoke.  Horses played a key role in Dwyer’s self-described “tipping point” towards veterinary school—when she spent three years working at various east coast Thoroughbred racetracks as a hot walker, groom, and eventually an exercise rider. “By the time I finished my admittedly crazy, somewhat wild “adventure” on the track, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to Cornell,” Dwyer says. “I clearly remember typing up my application on a NON-electric typewriter in the tack room of the racing stable at Hialeah in Miami!  When I sealed the envelope I think there was hay chaff inside it.  To my surprise I got an interview and was accepted for the Fall of 1979.”

At the College, Dwyer sunk her teeth into what would become her favorite courses--such as gross anatomy taught by Drs. Howard Evans (CALS '44, PhD '50), Alexander deLahunta (DVM '58, PhD '63), Wolfgang Sack and John Cummings (CALS '58, DVM '62, PhD '66) -- relishing the experience of sitting in lectures given by professors who “wrote the textbooks,” and the camaraderie in the clinics. “All the faculty seemed to be friends and colleagues, not competitors, and they treated the students like the budding clinicians we all were,” she recalls. “It was a real team feeling, quite a unique professional environment.  I think it set an example for me of how things should be when a group of people come together to solve problems and help animals.” 

Eying ophthalmology

Dwyer examines a patient. (photo: Dede Hatch)

When she graduated Cornell, Dwyer’s parents and friends pooled their resources  to buy her a direct ophthalmoscope as a graduation present. “Once I had a scope I figured I better learn how to use it, so I started looking at every horse I saw,” she says.  While she briefly considered pursuing specialty training in ophthalmology, “my gut told me that there was a place in the world for a general equine practitioner who had a special interest in ophthalmology. In looking at the sparse clinical literature that was available 30 years ago, my SOAP approach told me there was a need for more information on clinical problems in populations, and for relating eye problems in horses to equine health in general.  So I decided to stay put in practice, but pursue every available opportunity to train in ophthalmology.”

And pursue she did—even attending monthly Ophthalmology Grand Rounds at the University of Rochester Medical Center—something she continues to this day, along with serving on the Advisory Board of the Flaum Eye Institute at the University of Rochester. Dwyer also began to travel to universities in search of more ophthalmology training, spending time at University of Florida and North Carolina State, observing cases and participating in rounds.

Staying curious

This depth of knowledge around equine ophthalmology, and the breadth of experience that veterinary medicine lends, has given Dwyer the kind of career that keeps her engaged. “Years ago I worked on an assembly line to earn money during a college summer break,” she recalls. “Pretty much every day was the same.  I would report for work at the appointed hour, sit down at a table and assemble traffic safety devices (blinking lanterns) … That experience taught me to appreciate the variety and the challenge that every day brings when you become a veterinarian!”

Beyond the daily excitement that veterinary medicine has given Dwyer, she points out how a Cornell-taught foundation in the field has truly set her up for a life of practical perseverance. “There is something unique about the Cornell experience that I call the ‘roll up your sleeves and get it done’ approach,” she says. “It is eminently practical.  Kind of a ‘head in the clouds but boots on the ground’ attitude.  I have observed it throughout the university, not just in the veterinary school.  To me, Cornell represents a center of excellence that keeps the focus relevant to practical problems of the world.”

As Dwyer continues to manage her successful practice “one stall at a time,” she’s mindful of the foundation of meaning and mentorship she received at the College. “The value of having a Cornell education is that you have been given an example of mentors who are truly excellent in their respective fields but are still humble and plain spoken.  They teach you to ‘be in the world’ and to stay curious, but to always be grateful at the same time.”