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Old school pet doctor

By jim Published: September 28, 2009

By Malinde Reinke, The Dominion (WV) Post

There's a busy hum in the small crowded waiting room at Dr. Robert Stewart's place.

The half-dozen chairs are occupied and a couple people stand, chatting quietly, pet carriers or

leashed animals at their feet. A chubby little Chihuahua mix with nervous eyes snuggles in a young woman's lap. From somewhere in the back, a bird screeches.

"You ready to go? Let's go, buddy," a man says to his dancing dog as they step away from the reception window and scoot out the door.

After that, only two voices can be heard above the hum. One comes from a CNN newscaster droning on from a TV set mounted above the door to the lone examination room. But the listeners seem more focused on the old veterinarian himself.

"... the head of the femur is broken off and it's still in the socket ..." he's saying.

Perched on a tall stool by the back wall in the waiting room and talking on a cell phone, Dr. Stewart furrows his brow and his great gray mutton chop sideburns move in rhythm with his conversation. His words are terse and quick.

"...I gotta go in and dig the damn head out of the socket...OK...I would...OK..."

Another moment and he closes the phone. It's just after 5 o'clock and it looks like it could be a busy evening.

Stewart concludes his ritual of communing with his clients at the start of his early evening office hours. He calls out to one of his assistants and initiates the business that surrounds him.

First up: the little Chihuahua.

At 73, Dr. Robert Stewart, owner-practitioner of Easton-Avery Veterinary Service, has been doctoring creatures great and small at the same location on the bottom floor of his modest Morgantown home for 48 years.

Tens of thousands of dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, lizards, mice, foxes and fawns -- among other critters -- have stood shaky legged on the veterinarian's stainless steel exam table to be checked, diagnosed or inoculated. Many have been altered, cured or mended in his operating room.

If you count the patients from his annual spring rabies clinics, held for decades throughout Mon County, and last year in Preston, the numbers become unfathomable.

A populated photo board in the waiting room is labeled: "The Things We See Here." Pinned there are snapshots of pets you'd expect. And others, not so much.


"I treat 'em occasionally," Stewart said. "I treat pocket pets. I treat reptiles." He nodded toward one of the photos. "That's a Savannah monitor. It's a carnivore. It'll bite the crap out of you if you don't watch it, but that one was gentle."

Is that a dog?

"Fox. It was a house pet. Cost (its owner) hundreds and hundreds of dollars in damages. That little son of a bitch gnawed all his furniture. Everything he had, the arms were wrapped.

"I don't take crustaceans, mollusks or spiders. Actually, most tarantulas can't bite you unless you're pretty wrinkled. If they can get a hold of a wrinkle, they can nail you, but they say they make pretty good pets for people who like those sorts of things."

But most of his patients, he said, are plain old-fashioned dogs and cats.

"This morning we did a dog with an ear hematoma. We did a cat spay. A cat neuter. We set the broken foreleg on a little toy sheltie."

Stewart works seven days and evenings a week, including an hour on Saturdays and Sundays "justfor stuff that won't keep." He said the last vacation he took was for three days several years ago when he drove his truck to an animal swap meet in Ohio.

So you're a workaholic then, Doctor?

He only grinned.

Do you live alone?

"My wife thinks so," he said.

On a recent summer afternoon, after his morning surgeries and before his evening office hours, Dr. Stewart took a break to talk about his practice and about how, once upon a time, a lonely asthmatic boy who loved animals and who sewed up his first patient -- a street pigeon mauled by a cat -- when he was 12 years old, found his way to veterinary school in Oklahoma and then returned to hang his shingle in his beloved hometown.

The office was quiet.

The dogs and cats in post-op were sleeping. A veterinary assistant was doing paperwork. The only sounds were from the bird in the back or the occasional phone call.

Stewart was once again perched on his favorite stool in the waiting room.

"I'm old," he sighed.

"See those?" He nodded toward his legs. "From there down, I'm dead. From there up, I'm fine.

I've got diabetic myopathy in my legs. That's why I sit in a high chair. If I sit down there, I have to have my cane with me or I can't get out of the chair without a real struggle."

He lifted his cane then and he pointed toward the ceiling directly above him.

"My bed's right there," he said.

Then he told the story of his rambling office. When he bought it in 1961, it was a five room house -- a flat top building with a spiral staircase down to a basement -- a tight space for him, his pregnant first wife, his in-laws and his brand new veterinary practice.

In 1976, he excavated and added on to the place. The spiral staircase (now a nemesis) remains, and the office retains a vintage look and feel. The operating room is furnished with 1960s hand-me-downs salvaged from the old Vincent Pillotti Hospital downtown. The big silver operating light and operating table came from the delivery room.

"I may have been born on that table," Stewart said. "But everything works. We're not as fancy as some of the other ones, but they have five veterinarians."

Other rooms in the office include Stewart's pharmacy/lab, post-op, trauma, X-ray, bookkeeping office and reception area. "It all works fine," he said. "We keep things sterile."

A phone rang and a moment later, his assistant Shawna appeared.

"Somebody says her dog's stitches got busted out," she said.

"Tell her to come in."

"She's on the phone. It's been a week. I don't think it's bleeding, but she said it's hanging out and getting dirty."

Dr. Stewart sank onto his aching legs, slowly made his way to his office in the back and picked up the phone.

"Yep...Is it gapped?...OK, bring her in this evening and let me see her..."

Bandit looks worried.

He's trembling on the exam table, his long nails clicking frantically on the metal surface as

he scans the edges for an escape. Kristina Zilkanich, who loves him more than anyone in the world, hugs and comforts the Chihuahua with a sweetness in her voice designed to soothe.

"He's just gonna look at you, that's all," she says.

"Don't lie to him," Dr. Stewart grumbles. "I'm gonna stick a needle in him."

Bandit has a big round lump on his back.

Stewart pulls the little dog toward him and fingers the lump, which is about an inch in diameter and causes the short brown hairs around it to thin out. He suspects a fluid-filled sebaceous cyst. He pokes and prods and Bandit nearly slips away.

"Where you goin'? Where you goin'?" the vet says in a kinder, more playful tone he reserves for his patients.

"Anywhere but this table," Zilkanich says.

After several quick jabs with a syringe draws no liquid, Stewart nods.

"It's a tumor. It's not apt to be a fat tumor because it's too circumscribed. I would suggest you have it removed."

Zilkanich nods.

Stewart moves his fingers over the dog's back and belly.

"You got any more up there, huh? You got any more?" he says, the high pitched playful voice reprised. Bandit prances on the table.

"I'll tell you what. If we keep your little butt here, I'm gonna have your nails trimmed. Good lord, look at those! You look like you're gonna swoop down from the heavens and grab up a rabbit!"

He glances at Zilkanich.

"We can get to him tomorrow. If I get in there and I see it's lobulated rather than circumscribed -- in other words, if it's got little fingers sticking out, it might come back. But if it's nice and round and we can go around it and peel everything out, it's not apt to."

He and Bandit nuzzle noses.

"So just leave him here," Stewart sighs. "We'll stick him in an ice cold cage with water dripping from the sides."

Zilkanich smiles, and so does the vet.


"I grew up here," the veterinarian said. "I was raised three blocks from the old stadium in Sunnyside.

"My father was - ... well, he had these beautiful baby blue eyes that just made women melt. He was only married twice. He married my mother, but it didn't work out too well.

"My parents were divorced when I was 5. Neither one of 'em wanted to bother with me because all hell was breaking loose. It was 1940 and the war hadn't started yet. My (paternal) grandparents became my guardians."

Young Robert Stewart had other woes, too. He was a severe asthmatic.

"I was a sickly child, and I was really a lot of trouble. Nobody ever loved me like my grandfather. Nobody."

Stewart said that in the '40s, the air in parts of Morgantown was as bad as it was during the black sooty days in Pittsburgh.

"You could stand over on the hill and you could not see the town," he said. "Everybody burned high sulphur coal -- factories did, houses did.

"I couldn't breathe. I almost died the summer of '43. Toward the end of the school year, I got so ill that they had to take me to Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital and I got 13 tanks of oxygen."

Three hours after he came home from the hospital, he got sick again. So he moved from his grandparents' home in Morgantown to Front Royal, Va., where his dad was working as a pipe fitter.

Father and son lived in a company camp, in an 8-by-38-foot trailer with no plumbing.

Stewart still recalls gazing out the school bus window on frigid winter days and seeing ice on the shirts and pants hanging on the clotheslines.

It was 1945. He was 9.

A year or so later, Stewart's dad got work in Philadelphia. He remembers roller skating in the city streets and he says he held his own pretty well for a born and bred country boy.

Fast forward to his college years. Stewart attended WVU, where he earned a bachelor's degree in Agricultural Science.

"My grandparents were adamant that I wasn't going to be a horse doctor -- that I was going to be a real doctor," Stewart said. "So my first two years of undergraduate school, I was pre-med.

"Then one day my father cornered Dean (Clark) Sleeth -- he was (one of the first) deans of the medical school while they were building it. My dad was one of the pipe fitters out there. Anyway, he cornered the dean and asked him about horse doctors. He said his son wanted to be one of 'em.

"Dean Sleeth assured him it was an honorable profession, so they quit givin' me crap about it."

Since WVU had no veterinary school, Stewart went to Oklahoma State University. It cost $300 per semester, and the young veterinary student washed dishes for 50 cents an hour to help defray the cost.

And when he graduated, he came home to open his practice in Morgantown.

Bandit and Zilkanich are saying their goodbyes when Kristen, one of the two veterinary assistants working that evening, leans into the exam room.

"I have somebody on the phone about a baby parrot -- a 5-week-old macaw that has a burnt crop."

Dr. Stewart looks up at her.

"He's called several times," she says.

Stewart picks up the phone in his office. "Dr. Stewart."

He listens, nodding. Apparently, the caller fed his scarlet macaw for mula that was too hot, and it scalded the young bird's crop, a small pouch for food storage.

"Do you have any garden supplies, just regular limestone?" Stewart says. "Put a tablespoon in a pint of water. Shake it up, let it settle and use that for his water supply for a little while.

It'll soothe the burn...It's coming out of his where?"

The vet scowls.

"Well, that's a white horse of a different color," he says. "That one needs to be repaired surgically."

He advises the macaw owner to contact the bird vet at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and if he didn't have any luck there, to call him back.

"They used to take me out of class when I was a junior (in veterinary school), to treat birds," Stewart says after he hangs up the phone.

"People didn't do birds at the college then. They had a chicken man there, but he didn't know anything about little birds, small birds, whippoorwills and the like. Now all the schools have one. But back then, I knew more than they did."

Kristen's back.

"Want to see the rottie owner?" she asks.

And the old vet sighs.

Dr. Stewart strokes the big black rottweiler sitting wearily on his exam table. She doesn't seem nervous. Or look for an escape.

"You old bag of bones," he says gently to the dog.

To Joe Prisk, who seems to know already, the doctor says the news isn't good.

"She has very severe diabetes. I didn't know whether you wanted her to go through that or not, so I didn't start her on any insulin."

Prisk nods. Grim.

He wears a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and his muscular arms bear tattoos of a Native American with beautiful feathers and the image of a wolf.

"Right," he says. It's a barely audible word.

"Her liver's damaged. Her kidneys are damaged. I don't know whether we can make those stabilized or not."


Prisk pets his dog. Her name is Angel. She's 8. The Westover dog owner bought her from a canine trainer in Pittsburgh. When she started getting lethargic a few weeks ago, "didn't want to do much, didn't want to eat," he called a couple veterinarians who couldn't see her immediately. Then his parents recommended Dr. Stewart, who told him to bring her right in.

Now his eyes stay with Angel as the vet goes on.

"We'd probably need to keep her on injectibles here at the office for two or three days just to see if she'll respond. If she does, you can take her home and stick needles in her a couple times a day. Giving her anything by mouth is just a waste of time right now. She's not gonna absorb it.

"She's just a lump."

Prisk strokes Angel and doesn't reply.

"I'll do what you want. And if you don't want her to go through that misery, I'll put her down for you." Stewart says these words quietly, but straight forward. "You have to make that decision."

At last Prisk says, "I don't want her to suffer."

"No matter what goes on, if she stays alive, she's gonna suffer for a while."

"What's her chances of recovery?"


Prisk glances up to see Stewart looking straight at him.

"None?" Prisk says low.

They talk about diabetes for a while -- how sometimes animals can deal with the disease for a certain amount of time before it starts to show. Prisk asks how long it's been for Angel, and Stewart tells him it's hard to say.

Finally, Prisk says: "What do you think is the best thing?"

And finally the old vet says: "I think she's gone through enough stuff."

Paulette Stewart says she once took one of those quizzes women can't resist where you answer a bunch of questions about your interests and your preferences and what's most important to you in life. It was supposed to reveal what the quiz taker should look for in a husband.

"It said I should marry a man who likes animals," Paulette confides.

Perhaps it was destiny.

Dr. Stewart had mentioned offhandedly only the week before that his veterinary practice has been his "mistress" for going on half a century now. He found it was a hard thing for some women to accept.

"I'm wife number five," Paulette says.

So what of his work?

"It's endearing to me," Mrs. Stewart declares.

Full time, Paulette is employed as an economic service worker for the state of West Virginia.

Part time, when her husband needs her help, she works downstairs in the office, or in the field at the rabies clinics -- or, once in a while, on a house call to help sedate an overgrown pot-bellied pig that needs its hooves trimmed.

Married six years, the Stewarts were introduced by a mutual friend. It's true they don't vacation lavishly, but Paulette says they share other things. "He loves flowers, we have that in common. He has flowers I never even knew existed. We go to hymn sings. He's a wonderful singer. He sings gospel."

Her biggest sacrifice: cats. "I love cats. But the doctor has asthma, so we can't have them."

But they garden. They raise Chihuahuas. They go out to eat.

And, yes, their married lives and his veterinary practice sometimes intermingle.

"People knock on our door any time of the day or night," she says. "Usually, it's about a dog that was hit by a car or that got sick suddenly and they don't want to wait until tomorrow. I don't think I'd call my husband a workaholic, but he's definitely a hard worker.

"And I don't think he'll retire because he loves what he does."

When it was suggested that, on occasion, he can appear brusque with people, the doctor's wife was quick to agree.

"Oh, that's one thing about my husband," she avers. "He won't sugar coat it."

It's the end of the day.

His legs ache and he's probably hungry. But if you ask, he'll linger a while longer on his tall stool in the empty waiting room.

He'll tell you a tale about starting his practice by driving from Oklahoma to West Virginia in a station wagon full of animals -- including a mischievous scarlet macaw that swears.

Mention the wildlife in the area, and he'll rant about legislation that can dictate what sorts of local fauna veterinarians are permitted to treat without breaking the law.

Ask how his profession has changed over the years, and he'll say that technology, procedures and medications have certainly improved veterinary care.

He'll say things are different.

"When I went into practice, one guy -- and (veterinarians) were normally guys -- would borrow a little money, rent a house with a two-car garage next to it, and convert it into a clinic on a shoestring. Then he'd build it up and build it up by himself.

"That's not even considered today.

"You always have to work for somebody, and sometimes for a long time. So a lot of practices you see now have four or five veterinarians. Us solo veterinarians have a hard time keeping up unless..." and here he almost smiles again..."unless you stay married to the same woman for 30 years.

"I have an X-ray machine. But I don't have MRI (equipment) or that sort of thing. I don't do complicated orthopedics anymore. If I see that I can't handle a patient, I'll send them to someone I know can fix it."

These are mellow moments for the old veterinarian.

Yet you risk it. You say that although most clients give him rave reviews, some claim he's "blunt," "gruff" and "no-nonsense." On occasion, even "rude."

"Oh, I am," he says instantly. He says it with fervor. "And I jump their ass if they've screwed up one of my patients. I tell them, 'Hey, what do you think you're doing?'"

He's building up a rant when his cell begins its cheerful jingle. Mrs. Stewart calling.

"Yes, dear ... well, I think I can get unbusy in a minute...all you."

And that ends it.

With an apology for his exit and for "having bored you so long," the doctor steps off the tall stool. He glances toward the spiral stairs, toward home, toward a quiet evening with Mrs. Stewart -- barring, of course, a knock on the door at midnight.

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