Debbye Turner has accomplished much in her life – the Miss America crown and a coveted role on the Early Show at CBS – but her one career goal was to be a veterinarian.
She graduated with a degree in veterinary medicine (DVM) from the University of Missouri- Columbia in 1991, but knew she’d be a doctor when – at the age of 13 – she met Jack Jones, a veterinarian who cared for her family pets.
“I thought he was a miracle worker,” Turner recalls. “He seemed super human to me at the time. He could tell what hurt [even though her pets couldn’t tell him.] I thought he was so cool.”
The ability to uncover mysterious ailments and heal wounds fueled Turner’s interest in veterinary medicine and prompted her mother to suggest an internship with Dr. Jones at the Jonesboro Family Pet Clinic in Arkansas. Turner remembers cleaning cages and scooping poop as a volunteer during her summers and school vacations. “I got in the way, stood around and watched them work,” she says. “It was where I developed my image of the gentle doctor.”
Years later Turner would host a local television show called “The Gentle Doctor” and has – for the last five years – produced pet segments for CBS as the resident veterinarian.
“I cherish the thought that one day I’ll go back to dogs and veterinary medicine. I have great respect and admiration and a little bit of jealousy for my colleagues who are in private practice.”
– Debbye Turner, DVM , Miss America, CBS Correspondent
From bird flu to burgeoning pet sitting businesses and dolphin rescues, Turner highlights various aspects of veterinary medicine with stories that impart tips for pet owners.
For some people, the combination of pageant queen, newscaster, and veterinarian is a bit of a stretch but Turner says a common thread is good communication skills.
“I got into veterinary school because of my interview. I honed those communication skills competing in the Miss America system and know for a fact that I won because of my interview,” she says. “And now,” she adds, “I interview people for a living.”
During her senior year in veterinary school, Turner won the Miss America contest and took one year off from her studies to complete her pageant duties. She toured the country as a motivational speaker for youth and adult audiences, and caught the eye of a broadcasting agent who saw a bright future for her in television. When the agent contacted Turner about an interview, “I flatly told her no,” Turner says. “I thought she was a Hollywood con artist who was trying to take advantage of me.”
But the agent was persistent and Turner finally took a meeting. “One thing led to another,” Turner says, from local networks all the way up to national television shows, where she now reaches millions of viewers.
During her media career, Turner has covered a myriad of pet-related articles and takes pride in the fact that she effectively marries the role of doctor and television correspondent to educate people about becoming the best pet owners possible.
“I can do more good for pets here when I can reach three million viewers,” Turner says. Yet, “I cherish the thought that one day I’ll go back to dogs” and veterinary medicine. “I have great respect and admiration and a little bit of jealousy for my colleagues who are in private practice.”
Advice to Pet Owners
As a veterinarian working for CBS, Turner encourages pet owners “to be the eyes and ears of their veterinarians when they’re at home, and to report their observations.”
Small details like the cat is drinking more than usual, straining to urinate, or sleeping more than normal can provide your veterinary team with the clues they need to cure medical problems, she says.
“So much money is spent on veterinary care because the disease process went on too long. If pet owners are good observers they can save themselves money, veterinarians time, and they can save lives,” she explains.
If Turner could send one message to students interested in veterinary medicine, she would tell them to find a patient veterinarian who will let them experience daily life in the clinic. “Do you mind having poop under your nails,” she asks? “Do you have a gentle nature so that you can handle animals who are frightened?”
“Having good [hands-on] experience with animals is the best qualification for veterinary medicine,” Turner stresses. “It’s not enough to make good grades.”
Commenting on the changing nature of veterinary medicine – where pets sleep in their owners’ beds and eat at their tables – Turner recognizes that today “the stakes are higher. Veterinarians have an increased responsibility and a greater challenge to practice the best quality of medicine that technology allows us to practice.”
When she looks back on veterinary school, one case stands out. While working in the small animal hospital, an older woman came in with an aged Keeshond that had been diagnosed with cancer. Turner had completed her initial exam and just before leaving the room the woman told her that her husband had just died of cancer and she couldn’t bear the thought of losing her dog.
“It was the first time I saw the practice of veterinary medicine through the pet owners’ eyes,” she recalls. “I wasn’t just training for a job, this was a calling. This woman had brought a loved one to us and was desperate for us to do a good job. It was no longer a case number, this was a family member.”
This article originally appeared in PetsMatter Volume 2 Issue 1, published by the American Animal Hospital Association. Copyright © 2009 AAHA. Find out more.