Persistence doubled brings pet owners joy

MCKINLEYVILLE VETERINARIANS Dr. Jeff Stegmaier and Dr. Cathy Schmall with Sadie. Janine Volkmar | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

MCKINLEYVILLE – For pet owners, having a vet who is trustworthy, who listens, who is available, and who is kind is the Holy Grail.

If you’ve ever looked at the shelves and shelves of client files at a vet’s office, you’ll realize that you are just one of many who need the services of a good veterinarian.

Good vets don’t just spring full grown out of nowhere, especially in Humboldt County. They have gone through college and then through years of vet school, often followed by required internships. And two vets in particular also went the long route of working as techs in vet offices, as receptionists, and other support jobs before becoming full fledged vets.

Both Dr. Jeff Stegmaier, D.V.M. and Dr. Cathy Schmall, D.V.M. are examples of what persistence and hard work can accomplish. Stegmaier is the newest vet at the McKinleyville Animal Care Center and Schmall is part owner of the practice and a working vet there as well.

Schmall started there as a part-time receptionist and working the kennels. “At that time I knew I wanted to go to vet school so I started pestering them to let me learn the tech stuff,” she said. “I did emergency work with Dr. Trobitz at night. He was a great guy and helped me to get into vet school.” (Trobitz has since retired.)

Schmall graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in biology in 1989 and did seasonal work with the Forest Service after graduation. There was the usual “reduction in workforce” in the field. Schmall returned to the area and went to work at the McKinleyville Animal Care Center in 1998. With Trobitz’s encouragement, she started applying to vet schools around the country.

By her own admission, she didn’t have the “best grades.” And she was older than the typical just-out-of-college applicant. “They want someone just out of college with a perfect 4.0,” she said. It took her years of applications and rejections but she never gave up. She was accepted in 2001 at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Prince Edward Island, Canada.  It was a four-year program plus a one-year internship in upstate New York.

“I was old for my class but there were people older than me. It goes to show you that it’s never too late.”

Her persistence was a boon to animals in Humboldt County. Schmall is a caring and intelligent vet, particularly good at communicating with both owners and critters.

(Full disclosure: this writer’s rescued cat, Bobcat, has benefited from Schmall’s careful and diligent care for a difficult skin condition. In addition, he loves her, not something he has ever exhibited with any other vet. She calls him “Dude.”)

After vet school, Schmall worked in California’s Central Valley but “always wanted to get back to Humboldt County.” She was working as a vet in Eureka when someone told her that the practice in McKinleyville was for sale.

“There are not a lot of (animal) hospitals here and they don’t change hands very often,” Schmall explained. She was happy to get back to where she started.

“The beauty for me is owning it and working in the town I live in,” she said. Schmall and Heidi Chavez purchased the practice in 2015. Chavez had been manager for five years and worked at Sunny Brae Animal Clinic before that.

It can be challenging to keep enough vets in the practice to meet the needs of pet owners. “This is a tricky region, to get vets to come up to, and for keeping them,” Schmall said, citing the rain and other factors. “We’d been advertising for another vet all winter and not getting responses.”

But staff members reminded her about Stegmaier, who had also started out working at McKinleyville Anima

meet the needs of pet owners. “This is a tricky region, to get vets to come up to, and for keeping them,” Schmall said, citing the rain and other factors. “We’d been advertising for another vet all winter and not getting responses.”

But staff members reminded her about Stegmaier, who had also started out working at McKinleyville Animal Care Center. “We reached out to him when he was in his fourth year of vet school,” she said.

The practice filled out lots of paperwork and qualified to be one of Stegmaier’s required experience blocks, part of the required curriculum rotations. He spent a month at the practice in the spring and then came on full time after graduation.

Stegmaier graduated from HSU with a degree in zoology and worked for five years as a tech, in the kennels, in reception, and then as a room tech.

“I enjoyed being around animals and working with people who were interested in animal health and welfare,” he said. He went to vet school at the University of Minnesota, taking his 25 year old snake with him.

Stegmaier also has a cat, a dog, and a turtle. It’s clear he’s an animal person.

“I’m happy to be back,” he said. “Humboldt County always felt like home to us,” he explained, referring to his girlfriend of 14 years, an elementary teacher whom he met as an undergraduate. “We love the Hammond Trail and the beach.”

Working where he once worked is also like coming home. “This is the perfect situation,” he said. “I’ll see an animal that I last saw in a puppy exam that is now six or seven years old.”

Stegmaier had kept “in touch with Heidi over the years. When Heidi and Cathy purchased the practice, I was glad to come.”

He credits “co-workers and clients” for making him feel welcome again.

McKinleyville Animal Care Center offers some heart-centered services, too.

For established patients, the vets will make at-home euthanasia visits, to lessen the stress on the animal, or, as Schmall explained, “we can do the whole protocol in the car.”

For her, euthanasia is not the “hardest part of the practice. For most of the animals, it’s a release,” she explained. “It’s a gift we can give them.”

Harder, for her, is “delivering bad news.” She gave the example of a client bringing in a pet with odd symptoms, only to be told, after the exam, that it was something quite serious and life-ending. That is the most difficult part of her job.

It’s not hard for her to understand the owners’ feelings since she had three dogs herself, often at work with her.

“They are all mutts I’ve picked up,” she said. Ceilidh is a Husky/Border Collie mix who is around 14 and then she has “the nitwit twits, Sadie and Maggie.”

Other workers at the practice bring their pets, too, and there is a special play area for them.

Sadie came out to pose with both vets and acted as if she owned the place.

Could be true!