The Vets

Seven doctors from six Island veterinary practices share their stories.

Dr. Michelle Jasny examinines Flower the black lab with daughter Sydney Jasny. —Lynn Christoffers

Constance Breese

DVM, Sea Breeze Veterinary Service,

West Tisbury

What brought you to veterinary work on the Vineyard?

After graduation when I was looking for jobs, there was an ad: “Resort island seeks veterinarian, must be willing to work with sheep, goats, calves.” I had never been to the Vineyard. It was in the ’80s, and it was my first vet assignment. I developed my own practice ultimately, got my own clientele — some clients have been with me the whole time. I’ve seen different generations of animals, keeping some of the same clients for 30 years — that’s a reward, too.

‘The James Herriot experience’

We came into the office yesterday and had all these messages: The llama has diarrhea, the horse has a wound, the dog is sneezing … It keeps it very interesting and fun, usually. Living on the Vineyard is something I chose … I wanted “the James Herriot experience.” In traditional vet training — I went to Tufts — you have to learn about all species. Why would I learn all this information, and graduate and work only with dogs or cats or horses? I do like the multi-species aspect of the practice. And just as each species is different, every golden retriever is different.

Small domestic pets and large farm animals

It’s primary care here in the office: We do blood tests and exams for dogs and cats; an occasional goat or alpaca will come to the office for an eye procedure. We do a lot of farm work, which is an area of interest of mine, not so much my colleagues. Like the Grey Barn, there’s a lot of agricultural businesses that have grown in the past few years, with the local food movement, bringing a lot more sheep and goats, chickens, cows on the Island; also, there are two large alpaca farms. There are the animals to be eaten for food. So what’s involved with that: keeping the animals healthy and educating farmers about management.

Last spring we had a goat that had quadruplets. The owner suspected she might have multiple births, so called me. It was during the day. I went out, and it went off without a hitch. The baby goats were all healthy, it was fun. Occasionally the farm animals will need an assistance with delivery, usually due to positioning changes that can happen right before birth. It’s usually only when they don’t progress that we get called in to help. Alpacas have such long legs, we sometimes assist with the birthing.

The interface with the small animals can be talking about tick-borne diseases. We have to develop tests because our patients can’t talk to us, they can’t say how they feel. We listen to the owner, do our physical assessment, and figure it out. We screen all dogs for tick-borne disease every year, as we have an excellent screening test. And we have a test which can tell if it’s a recent infection or not. There is nothing close to that in people medicine. Horses get Lyme disease, as they have a big surface area exposed to ticks. Yes, the research is always changing, which is true for all aspects of veterinary medicine, especially multi-species practice. It’s a challenge to keep up. We go to continuing education classes, as it’s required.

A network for information

The Vineyard makes an interesting place to practice veterinary medicine, because it is geographically isolated but seasonal visitors traveling with pets come from all over. Farmers have expanded their breeding stock by purchasing animals from out of state. I have to bear in mind that medical conditions in my patients may include diseases that have been “imported” here and not previously diagnosed.

One real interest of mine is in that crossover. We’ve had some very interesting cases. An animal that was purchased out West brought an illness contagious to people (the owner didn’t know this) … There isn’t a network between vets and human physicians to say, “This illness is here, you might have a human come to the hospital with this.” I’m talking to people to see how we could establish that network for communication with the medical community here.

Steven W. Atwood,


Janet M. Ross,


Animal Health Care Associates,

MV Airport, West Tisbury

What makes veterinary work on Martha’s Vineyard different from other places?

S.A. The Vineyard is a wonderful place to be a veterinarian, as the animal owners here have very strong emotional bonds to their animals and the capacity to best provide for them. Also, our remote geographical Island location, without 24-hour access to either freestanding emergency clinics or tertiary referral facilities with specialists, necessitate that you end up doing a far greater range of medical/surgical procedures than would be done in the average practice on the mainland. This challenge is appealing to me — in a sense, pushing the envelope on a daily basis.

My first position out of veterinary school, after an internship in New Haven, was to become the only veterinarian on Nantucket, an Island even more remote and isolated than the Vineyard. I had to take on everything that came at me, and it forced me to get up to speed very quickly. There I also developed close friendships with my physician colleagues, sharing information, resources, and in some cases, patient care.

J.R. The unique thing about being a vet on the Island is that we have every angle covered. We all have our specialties and share information. We work together as a team, working always toward the greater good. And someone is always on call to cover emergencies — we rotate the responsibility. It’s a 24-hours-a-day duty, 365 days a year. Emergencies are hard! When an emergency calls, we have to cover all species.

Do you have a special veterinary expertise — a particular area of medicine and/or animal care?

J.R. My special area is integrative medicine: acupuncture, herbal therapy, and Chinese medicine, to name a few treatments. I am lucky to be able to practice what I have learned. Steve Atwood, VMD, who founded the practice here and is great at every aspect of veterinary medicine, encourages me to treat my patients with modalities a bit different from the norm.

S.A. In my case, surgery has always been a very strong interest of mine. One of the great attractions of veterinary medicine is that we are trained to perform a wide range of surgical procedures on many different species of animals … the variety and challenges are endless. I find this fascinating. Moreover, surgical results are often rapid: Within a few hours after performing a procedure, you can have the patient running out the door. This is very satisfying professionally.

Dr. Atwood, can you explain all those degrees after your name — why advanced study in medicine?

S.A. Growing up, I was exposed to and became interested in both veterinary and human medicine, having family members in both fields. While at veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania, home to one of the world’s great biomedical centers, I spent a lot of time in the operating rooms of the Medical School, deepening my interest in comparative medicine. Many years later, after working in veterinary medicine, I decided to go back to medical school, and earned an M.D. in human medicine. As an outgrowth of that experience, I also became interested in public health disease prevention and health promotion, so a few years later I went to the University of Massachusetts School of Public Health to obtain an M.P.H. degree.

Are you continuing your medical study beyond your degrees?

S.A. I’ve really enjoyed being involved with a biotechnology company based in Cambridge that is focused on stem cells and regenerative medicine applications. The work is now being developed with animals, with future potential for human application. One example of this comparative approach is to be able to improve the treatment for osteoarthritis in both species.

Do you have a favorite animal to treat?

S.A. Actually, no. I really do love them all: cats, dogs, sheep, horses. We do a little bit of everything, and they all need us. We always have the animal’s best interest at heart, to ease their suffering and improve their quality of life. The variety is very appealing to me — that’s the cool thing about the Vineyard, we have it all.

Michelle Gerhard Jasny,

VMD, Vineyard Haven

Do you have a special veterinary expertise – a particular area of medicine and/or animal care?

Veterinary medicine has changed a lot over the 35 years I have been in practice. Nowadays I focus primarily on dogs and cats, but for the first 20 years, I would pretty much treat anything. People’s expectations were different. They understood that we couldn’t know everything about every species, and we just did the best we could. There were far fewer veterinary specialists. Nowadays there are specialists available for all kinds of things, and many people are more willing and able to spend more on their pets.

I don’t have a particular expertise, but I do feel that I am very good at helping people with making end-of-life decisions and assisting both pets and people through that process. For many people (and especially for children), the loss of a pet is an incomparably deep experience. I feel very honored when I can be a part of that, and support my patients and their owners through in a loving and positive way.

What is your favorite animal to treat?

I’m afraid my favorite animal to treat is a bit of cliché: It’s kittens. Seriously. Nothing makes my day more than getting to meet a couple of healthy kittens.

I’ve also enjoyed volunteering with Biodiversity, where I got to help with their black racer snake project.

Why are you different from other vets on the Island?

That’s a tough question. I think each of us is unique, and we each have our own niche. I think one thing that makes me different is that many years ago, I chose to make my practice smaller, rather than larger. I wanted to have the time to give enough attention to each of my clients, as well as to my family. I’ve been here the longest of any of the vets. Many of my clients I’ve known for more than 30 years. Some used to come to my office with their parents when they were children. Now they’ve grown up, and have families and pets of their own. For the most part I feel like I have a real personal connection with each client that walks in my door. It makes a big difference when you know who is struggling with illness, who has a special needs kid, who just had a death in their family. I get to know each person’s philosophy, to know what level of medical intervention works for them, what approach. I focus a lot on client education, so we can make decisions together as a team, and in the context of the big picture of that particular animal and family.

Is there an animal that fought a heroic battle or one that you thought might never survive an illness or injury, but did?

I remember Freddie, the office paraplegic orange cat.

Since you asked about Freddie, it was 1998. I don’t remember all the details precisely, but here it is to the best of my recollection. A perfectly healthy 8-week-old kitten had disappeared from its original home. Five days later, he was found in the parking lot of Back Alley’s. There was some story of someone seeing a kitten being thrown out the window of a moving car, but this was never confirmed.

On arrival, the kitten was clearly paralyzed in the hind end. He could use his front legs and chest normally, but had no use of his back legs, and no voluntary bladder or bowel function. We couldn’t find an actual break in his back, but assumed there had been spinal cord injury as a result of the trauma of being thrown from the car. We gave him some time to see if he would regain any function, but he didn’t.

The original owners did not feel prepared to care for a paraplegic cat, so Freddie came to live at my office. We manually expressed his bladder and bowels twice a day, every day. He was a very happy kitten, and quickly adapted to his disability. He could pull himself along with his front legs in sort of a sitting position, and could fly around the office as fast as any cat with four functioning legs. We wrapped his hind legs in bandages to protect them from getting pressure or friction sores. At one point we did attempt to make him a little scooter, but he didn’t like it, much preferring to be on his own just sliding along the linoleum. He gave us all a lot of joy before succumbing to heart disease at 6 years old.

Have you seen any remarkable bonds between animals, or humans and animals?

I know that the bond can appear very quiet, very understated, but still be incredibly deep. Sadly, the times we veterinarians get to see that bond the most is during times of loss. One that I always remember is from over 30 years ago. A big dog named Princess was rushed into the clinic with heat stroke, accompanied by a 9-year-old boy. The dog died within minutes of arriving. I had never seen raw grief like what that young boy expressed that day. It was devastating and heart-breakingly beautiful. It’s another cliché, but it was “a boy and his dog.” Another time a man I didn’t know came in at midnight with his dog, who had been hit by a car. The dog was DOA, and there was nothing I could do but sit with the gentleman while he poured his heart out and just wept for over an hour. And once a young girl grieving for her hamster, which reminded me that love is love, whether it’s a Great Dane or a tiny hamster.

Bridget Dunnigan

MS, DVM, and clinic manager,

Vineyard Veterinary Clinic, Edgartown

Do you have a special veterinary expertise – a particular area of medicine and/or animal care?

The Vineyard Veterinary Clinic’s motto is “Better medicine through education.” We do our best to inform our clients about the health status of their pets, and to explain the range of options so that the clients are best prepared to make treatment decisions for their pets.

We see and treat all species of household companion animals; from the dog and cat to the parrot and ferret, to the rabbit and lizard. If they walk on padded feet, hop, fly, or slither, we will attend to their medical needs.

What is your favorite animal to treat?

I believe that the domestic dog is “humankind’s best invention.” My favorite breed is the 10- to 40-pound sweet little mutt. But I enjoy working with all companion animals.

How are you different from other vets on the Island?

The Vineyard Veterinary Clinic is a “group practice”; Dr. Williams started the clinic in 1997, I came aboard in 1998. Although you may see just one doctor in the exam room, you benefit when your veterinarian discusses your pet’s case with the other doctors working at our clinic, when they make consulting phone calls to mainland veterinary specialists, and even when they post questions to specialists on the “Veterinary Information Network.” The collective discussion among many different doctors is advantageous to your pet’s well-being. And, yes, we even go home and discuss your pet’s case late into the night.

What makes vet work on Martha’s Vineyard different from other places?

Our wonderful Island is separate, and at night even cut off from the mainland with its 24-hour emergency clinics and specialists. Therefore, unlike mainland veterinary clinics, we can’t just turn our phones over to an after-hour emergency clinic. Since no one doctor can be on call 24/7, the majority of the Island practices have come together to participate in the “Island Veterinary Emergency Services” that provides for the afterhours emergencies. This benefits not only the Island residents, but visitors, who are also an important part of the Island’s economy. Thank goodness for the cooperative efforts among these Island veterinarian practices. In addition to providing afterhours emergency care, this group arrangement affords hours of sleep and recuperation for the veterinary providers.

Dave Tuminaro


Caring for Animals, Oak Bluffs

Can you tell us about yourself and the mobile practice?

I went to school in England and graduated from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. I came to the Island, worked a few years as a veterinary associate, then took a job for one year off-Island at Cape Cod Associates. When I decided in October 2005 to go ahead with my own practice, I talked to other Vineyard vets first to be sure another vet on the Island was viable. I found this company, La Boit in Ohio, that makes these specialty RVs. In 2006 I started my practice with the mobile van unit, making mine a unique service on the Island.

What are the pros and cons of a mobile vet unit?

I really like working for myself; I like the downtime between appointments, I get to see scenery, I have windows. It can be depressing working inside without windows all day. For cats, it’s nice to have windows, as it’s a little distraction for them.

It’s a busy time in the summer, and it takes longer to get from place to place, since we travel to appointments. One time we had an emergency in Aquinnah and one in Katama — it took me an hour to get from one to the other. Usually, during the day I can schedule my route, but if I get an emergency, it can throw us off the whole day.

With the van it’s long surgical time: The surgery part may only take 20 minutes, but then there’s the setup and the recovery time. So that has changed how I do procedures. Now I tend to schedule surgical procedures once or twice a week.

Isn’t it an attraction to clients that you make house calls?

Maybe half my clients come to us because we are mobile. They really like the mobile idea, especially for cats who don’t enjoy traveling in a car. Unfortunately, I get a lot of calls with dogs who are fear-aggressive, biting because they are afraid. But a lot of them still tend to have an issue with our hospital: It has the same smells, and I do the same procedures. However, we don’t have the barking dogs, or phones ringing in the background.

Who are your clientele?

Ninety percent dogs and cats, 5 percent horses, 5 percent others: goats, sheep, the occasional mouse, and bird. Yesterday we had a household that had two dogs and seven cats. I only saw a tarantula once and a snake once. When I started the practice it was more mixed, but now a lot of the horse owners are seeing “equine only” vets.

Some of the farms use vets from off-Island. I enjoy farm calls, but they do tend to take more time. They are more driven by economy. All the farms that I have seen take good care of their animals.

Is there an animal that fought a heroic battle or one that you thought might never survive an illness or injury, but did?

One of the few photos on my wall in the van is of a patient dog called Beetlebung; the dog and owners live in New Jersey. You’ll see in the photo the dog has three legs, and the back leg has a cast on it. When I was on call, he got hit by a car, early enough in the evening that the boats were still running. I assessed that one leg was already off … this dog needed critical care; the owners agreed to take it off-Island. It was August — a busy time— the Steamship found parking for me so I could park right next to him and continue to triage until we got to the Cape Cod Veterinary Specialist in Bourne. They had to remove one leg — he had fractured the back other leg — and it was an open wound. The wound needed daily bandage changes, so the owners asked me to do it. The first few days we had to sedate Beetlebung, as it was that painful. For a week we did the bandage changes. On the last day, she came up to thank us, she wagged her tail, after all she went through.

A great success story from one that started out very tragic.

Your favorite animal?

An otter. Who is graceful in water and on land. Though I’ve never treated one.

A good fit: Assistant Mary Surprenant

It is a unique practice, and it’s really nice that we found this fit — it’s just the two of us. Mary [Surprenant] started in 2008 as my vet assistant, and has been with me ever since.

It’s also a benefit being mobile, we can joke around a bit more and having that laid-back time in between appointments gives us a break to regroup.

M.S. It’s nice to have a change of scenery every day, in between every appointment. We do get along very well, with a similar sense of humor. We tend to do a lot of euthanasias, because we do go to the house, since we are mobile. It helps that we have that ability to make each other laugh after something that’s very stressful for both of us and very sad for everyone involved.

Kirsten G. Sauter

DVM, My Pet’s Vet, Vineyard Haven

Why a vet?

I loved animals growing up. My older brothers and sisters tell me that I decided when I was 6 to be a vet. I basically didn’t waver from that, though I thought of being an artist at one point, but my father told me there was no living in that.

Most of our business is treating dogs, cats and horses. If I could have been anything, I would have been a horse vet. I wanted the equine part. I’ve been practicing since 1989, when I moved here. I opened this business in 1994.

We do farm calls for horses. It’s definitely an added challenge to handle mixed animals — like the general practitioner for humans. Anywhere else in the country, it’s pretty unique these days to still cover emergencies and mixed animals. It’s a dying breed.

Several off-Island “equine only” vets visit here on a regular basis, who are very reputable. The equine practitioners do acupuncture, chiropractic, joint injections — things that are common for them. We work as sort of a team.

How much of your practice is dealing with the tick issue?

The Vineyard always has been “tickville.” You have to be constantly aware. It is very rare for cats to get it, but cats on the Vineyard definitely do get tick diseases. This is one of a couple of hot spots in the country where cats can get it.

How big a factor is the human-animal bond in your decisionmaking in patient care?

It’s huge. I think the human-animal bond is the reason this profession exists. If it weren’t for pets being such close family members, we’d be doing something else, like public health for third-world countries. The humans are so much a part of the relationship; the pet is so important to them. Everybody is bonded to their pet; that’s why they come to us.

What do pets do for humans?

Everything. From just service animals, to company, to not coming home to an empty house — giving affection and emotional support. They are a reason to get up every day: to take care of them, to take the dog for a walk.

Do you have animals at home?

We have two horses and a pony, three dogs, and a parrot — that’s low for us. I ride, and my kids know how to ride, as they were taught growing up, and are familiar with horses and pet chores.

Do you have days when you want to quit/have a different job?

I call them Walmart days, when you just want a brainless job, one that doesn’t have life-and-death consequences, and the worst thing to go wrong is that your drawer is off, and you have to recount it. There’s a lot of responsibility with this profession, and that can be exhausting, but that’s what makes it exciting at the same time. No two days are the same. Pets have to die of old age sometime, and it’s hard when you’ve known them their whole life. Euthanasia is an important gift we can give them so they don’t have to suffer with their disease.

What keeps you going?

You want to be there for your client; you have an established relationship dedicated to being sensitive to your client and their pet’s needs and to helping them as much as you can. I see generations of families over the years.

I have great staff, with very little turnover. That makes a huge difference in running a business and for the clients to feel comfortable and recognized in the practice. It’s not always easy to find smart, sharp, caring local people, but I’ve been very lucky and been able to keep them for a long time.