All Worthwhile

Steve Ettinger, D.V.M. ’64 & Julio Lopez, D.V.M. ’08

Steve Ettinger, D.V.M. ’64, is considered a pioneer in veterinary cardiology and internal medicine. He has mentored Julio Lopez, D.V.M. ’08, who also specialized in internal medicine, since Lopez was an undergrad and worked as a technician in Ettinger’s clinic at the California Animal Hospital in Los Angeles. Ettinger encouraged Lopez to apply to Cornell, and the two alumni now share their mutual appreciation of the college to this day. Lopez had the chance to ask Ettinger to reflect on his life as a veterinarian, and the highs and lows of their chosen profession. You can listen to their entire conversation here.

Julio Lopez: You’ve always had such a love for Cornell, even to this day, it always comes up in conversation … I imagine you really enjoyed your time there as a veterinary student. Is there a specific memory you have about your time as a student there?

Steve Ettinger: My memory as a student was working extremely hard, and playing hard. I think that generally fits the attitude that I have about Cornell; work hard, play hard. And we did. But I also think that we got an excellent education. We had an opportunity with professors and faculty members who were just so well known throughout not only the country, but throughout the world. And the opportunities that we got … I mean, this is a long time ago now, they were unique to the profession. Today, I think, they’re pretty much expected, but we had people up there who really went overboard to make us welcome, to keep us feeling welcome, and to work hard, making us members of the profession literally from the day that we got in.

a graphic illustration of two veterinarians shaking hands with a dog between them.

Lopez: I had the same experience and feeling as you did, because even years later when I went to Cornell, there was definitely a lot of people around that made sure I felt welcome, especially coming from such a long way, even from day one of just the campus visit. And through my four years there, everyone had been welcoming and supportive. I think that’s one of the reasons we become so supportive of Cornell as well, after leaving, are just those great people that we meet there, who have a personal interest, not only in your professional success, but also making sure that everything is going well in your personal life as well.

Ettinger: You’re absolutely right. If we look at the students that came out of Cornell from your era, and the number of them that we all maintain contact with, or contact with each other at this point, I think that’s pretty phenomenal, because we’re going across generations, not within one generation.

Lopez: It seems very unique to Cornell. I don’t usually talk to other veterinary graduates and feel that same bond that they have with their alma mater.

Ettinger: Well, I think that’s true… it goes beyond the boundaries of just a normal, if you will, nine-to-five classroom work.

Lopez: I know Dr. Robert Kirk has come up frequently in conversation with you, as being a very important person in your life. Can you tell me a few of the reasons why he was such a strong influence in your career?

Ettinger: When I went to vet school, I was still somewhat confused in terms of what I wanted to do. And it wasn’t until my junior year of veterinary school that I walked into my first small animal class, which was being taught by Bob Kirk. And literally, 45 minutes after I walked out of that classroom, I turned to my roommates and I said, “This is what I want to do.”

“Literally 45 minutes after I walked out of that classroom, I turned to my roommates and I said, ‘This is what I want to do.'”

Steve Ettinger, D.V.M. ’64

And so, Bob became my mentor…And I would have to say that of all the great professors and teachers that we had in veterinary school, the person that influenced me the most at Cornell was Bob Kirk.

The other person that I would include in that was our freshman anatomy professor, Howie Evans. These were the two people that guided me and gave me direction in terms of where and how I might go as a young veterinarian.

Lopez: And funny you bring up Dr. Evans, because his office was directly across the hallway from anatomy lab. One of the reasons I looked forward to going to anatomy lab was not to go to anatomy class itself, but because either before lab, or after, I could pop right into Dr. Evans’ office, and just talk to him about all the specimens he had in his lab. He was just so passionate about going over each and every specimen and talking about his travels, and the biology and natural life of each of those animals, it was just fascinating, and kind of a bonus class I got before anatomy class.

Ettinger: I think the fascinating thing is here I am, 55 years later, and Howie is still doing the same thing…. He was just a kind of person that couldn’t get enough of teaching. He couldn’t teach you enough. The more interest you showed, the greater was his interest, and it was always there.

Lopez: I couldn’t agree more.

Ettinger: We were very fortunate, because we had a unique situation in that not only did we go into Howie’s office and learn more, it wasn’t for testing, it was just fun and exciting and part of what veterinary medicine was all about in terms of comparative medicine.

We [also] had the unique opportunity as having as our instructor in anatomy for the first year, a fellow that most Cornellians know by the name of Sandy De Lahunta. …That was just when neurology was starting to take off, and of course, there was no end of interesting commentary, and learning about neuro-anatomy, which up until that point had not been taught.

Lopez: That’s another striking thing about the college, is that throughout all the years from when you went to that school, and I went to that school, that some of the same professors were still there, and it sounds like still teaching and doing everything with the same passion as when you met them. I think that stability added to the college in forming that bond through multiple generations, being able to chat about all the professors that we had, and overlapped with, and are still there.

Ettinger: Yeah. I think it gave us a sounding board for what we were to expect once we did graduate. So it wasn’t like just four years in isolation, but it was rather that pre-vet period that we all shared, having come from different undergraduate schools, to bonding as a class, and then to continue to bond past graduation.

Steve Ettinger, D.V.M.’64 and Julio Lopez, D.V.M. ’08. Photo provided

Lopez: What are some of the most important life lessons you’ve learned in your career?

Ettinger: Well, that’s a really fascinating question, … [I think] that is dealing with difficult clients. It’s easy to deal with appreciative clients, and many of them are appreciative over things that you actually don’t really believe were above and beyond the normal.

But one of the things that we do have to deal with are the difficult clients that we have to not allow them to ruin our day … or destroy our love for veterinary medicine. We don’t always have the ability to satisfy each and every person. We try, but all of us have different personalities. And I think under those circumstances, you learn to basically move them onto another member of your practice, who might be better off dealing with them.

Lopez: What are some of the changes, both medical and non-medical, that have occurred in the field of veterinary medicine, that stand out to you?

Ettinger: Well, the incredible new equipment that we have that was just unavailable to us. … But there’s also the question of when is it right, and it was wrong? I was reading an article in the New England Journal of Medicine last week that talked about the ethics and philosophy of just how much do you offer a patient that really doesn’t have the potential for any good quality of life, or remainder of life? So I think these are really important things.

A veterinarian is conflicted with wanting to do the very best, and sometimes feeling as if he or she is unable to do that, either because the client doesn’t want to, or the client can’t afford it, or because you don’t know anything about the subject, and you can’t offer it to the client. So it leaves a feeling of, “Well, I’m not really very good at this profession.” And that’s not the case.

Lopez: …What do you hope to see happen in the field of veterinary medicine, moving forward?

Ettinger: I think the biggest single problem that’s facing our profession now is student debt. I certainly don’t have the answers to it, but I know that if we don’t do something about student debt, the entire profession will be in a great deal of trouble. …

Lopez: Yeah. That debt burden is very significant for students, with everything else you have to worry about, coming out of school, and finding a job, and being a good veterinarian, now you have this giant loan hanging over your head, that you have to find a way to pay for. It certainly makes my student debt seem very, very small compared to what students are coming out of now, 10 years after I graduated.

Ettinger: I strongly believe that veterinary applicants should be told about student debt and what’s involved, before they go to vet school. When a veterinary student is in his third year of veterinary school and she’s suddenly finding that she’s facing $150-$250,000 in debt, that’s too late. They have to know what this is going to be before they even apply to veterinary school.

A graphic illustration of a veterinarian scratching their head.

Lopez: It’s certainly something I have conversations with the pre-veterinary students that I know. Many of them don’t think about the cost of education, it’s just something they’ve always wanted to pursue, like myself. And you don’t think about those things …what kind of debt situation will they be in, depending on what school they go to.

I think one of the advantages Cornell has, especially over the newer colleges too, is that alumni bond that it forms, and there are a lot of scholarships available at Cornell, that I frankly don’t think are available at other universities. It’s one of those things that helped me when I was in school, is the various scholarships that were available from either different donors, or alumni, that certainly helped bring down my student debt load while I was in school.

Lopez: And again, it’s that connection that we make. This past year was my 10th year anniversary of graduation, something that I did when my 10 year from UCLA came up as well is, I started to donate …. And hopefully, as I keep advancing in my professional career, that that amount can grow as well, to give back for all the support Cornell has given me as well. I think that’s one of the things that makes Cornell truly special as well, is that connection that’s formed, and the pool of funds available that have been donated to the college, that help support students.

Ettinger: You’re absolutely right. That’s one of my passions, is talking to people, and trying to convince them to donate back to the school. … We Cornellians are particularly fortunate, because we’ve had the backing and the help from the entire university, to try and raise money and to have a lot of that money raised specifically set aside for student loans, because that is ultimately the only way that we’re going to be able to continue to provide the quality veterinary education that we do.