How does a 90-year-old veterinarian keep on going? He keeps on giving.
When NEWStat caught up with Anthony Thomas, DVM, just after New Year's, the 90-year-old veterinarian was still getting over a bout of pneumonia that felled him during the holidays.
“I’d been working 10 hours a day, just like always, ‘til last month when I caught this doggone thing,” he laughs. His colleagues at AAHA-accredited Midwest Veterinary Hospitals in Oklahoma City were trying to ease him back into a regular schedule, but Thomas was champing at the bit.
The Midwest staff are used to it.
“[Thomas] always bounces back,” says Midwest co-owner Troy Acree, DVM. “He'll have a heart issue, but he'll be back in a week or two and you're like, ‘Oh my Gosh, this guy just never stops.’"
Thomas has never done well with down time, and those long days at the office start well before he actually gets there.
“I’m usually up about 5:00 and do an hour-long workout,” he says. “The only reason I get up that early,” he adds, almost apologetically, “is I used to run marathons, and I’d try to get in so many miles before I’d go to the office.”
His usual routine includes a mix of light weights and aerobics in a home gym just off his bedroom, and if he doesn’t work out in the morning, “it’s just because I’m too lazy to go in there,” he chuckles.
Lazy is the last word anyone would use to describe Thomas, who says he never intended to become a veterinarian: “It just kind of worked out that way.”
Lessons from the farm
An Oklahoma farm boy born and raised on the same farm he still calls home, Thomas was the first in his family to go to college. His parents didn’t have the money to send him, so he joined the Army ROTC to pay for undergrad at the University of Oklahoma (OSU). After doing his time in the service, then came back to OSU to earn his master's in animal nutrition with the intention of taking over the family farm.
But the dean of OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine had other ideas and invited him to apply. Thomas was flattered but had his doubts. “I'd already been in school a long time. It was time to go to work,” he says.
Despite Thomas’ misgivings, the dean talked him into it.
He started working at Midwest while still a student and went full time in 1961. Back then, his workload was split between large animals and companion animals. Growing up on a farm, he’d had plenty of experience with large ones, mostly horses and cattle, but he’d always been partial to pigs. “I was in the pig business in high school,” he recalls, “trying to make money.”
As a member of the Future Farmers of America, Thomas showed his pigs at the Oklahoma State Fair in the late 1940s. And he continues to volunteer his veterinary services there. “I still deliver pigs,” he laughs.
An award-winning veterinary career
Donating his time has been a way of life for Thomas; his many volunteer activities have included serving on the board of admissions of OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine; as president of his local school board; and as a director of a local bank, the local chamber of commerce, the YMCA, and the Rotary Club.
That’s in addition to a stint on the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.
Along the way, he practiced veterinary medicine full time, and well enough to be voted Oklahoma Veterinarian of the Year in 1981, and AAHA Practitioner of the Year in 1999.
Despite his fondness for pigs, Thomas prefers to work with companion animals, and that’s been mostly what he’s done for the past 50 years. Thomas has never been bored a day in the office. There’s too much variety. “We see everything,” he says.
Thomas has seen some big changes in his six decades of practice, too.
The biggest is in ownership goals: “When we got out of vet school, we went into practice with the idea of buying one someday, and being the owner,” he says. “But that does not seem to be the case today.” The options are more limited.
He says a lot of that has to do with the rise of corporate ownership as a practice model, another big change.
While he doesn’t have anything against corporate ownership, he’d likely chafe at the restrictions compared to private practice: “You may not have the freedom to practice exactly as you’d want.” he says. “Midwest is a regular family practice, and we allow our vets quite a bit of latitude.”
Leading the change at AAHA and beyond
Thomas’ penchant for volunteer work extends to AAHA; Midwest first earned its AAHA accreditation in 1953, which makes it one of the oldest accredited hospitals in Oklahoma. Thomas served on the AAHA Board of Directors in the 1980s when he was already working on vet med public education at both the state and national level.
He said he ran with a mission in mind: “I thought that AAHA should be member-driven and not organization driven,” he says. That’s how AAHA’s run today, but Thomas says it wasn’t always so. He gives the board members he served with most of the credit for that: ““I was pretty fortunate to have a really good team,” he said.
Thomas is proud of their efforts on AAHA’s behalf, and of AAHA: “It’s a great organization,” he said. “AAHA has elevated veterinary medicine and taken it to another level.”
Although Thomas still works a 10-hour-day in the practice, he’s cut back on volunteering, as well as some of his hobbies like golfing and hunting quail.
But he hasn’t cut back on his morning workouts: “That’s a routine I established a long time ago.”
Thomas knows the importance of routine, because it’s hard to start new ones as you age. He chuckles, “If I change routine, it screws everything up.”
Tony McReynolds is a temporarily petless freelance writer who lives near a dog park in Lafayette, Colorado. He dreams of one day owning a Newfie who isn't afraid of water (which the last one was, and seriously, how is that even possible?).
Photo of Dr. Tony Thomas and Mowgli courtesy of Midwest Veterinary Hospitals