Words to live by


St. Paul, Minn. — "What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others lives on."

ST. PAUL, MINN. — "What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others lives on."

Dr. Carl A. Osborne

It's been a guiding principle for Dr. Carl A. Osborne, a world-renowned veterinary urologist, educator and philosopher from the University of Minnesota's (UM) College of Veterinary Medicine, who's career now spans more than 40 years, three text books, a number of presidencies and 585 continuing education presentations.

To offer a point of reference, more than 2,500 veterinarians have gone through Osborne's classes throughout the years; there are only 1,423 DVMs in the state of Minnesota.

Christened last year with the American Veterinary Medical Association's first Robert R. Shomer Award for veterinary ethics, Osborne talked with DVM Newsmagazine about veterinary medicine's path, his career, the early years and his battle with Parkinson's disease.

A personal mission

One hour with Osborne, and one walks away knowing this man is about clarity of purpose, mission and generosity.

It all starts with such a simple premise: the golden rule. Adorning his personal mission statement, Osborne explains, "I would like to care for my patients as I'd like to be cared for myself."

If you accept it as a treatment and dab it liberally to your professional and personal life, its curative properties offer balance. It also serves as ethical bedrock.

And veterinarians face many life and death ethical dilemmas during the course of a career. Fees, euthanasia, life-long learning, bed-side manner, treating abandoned injured animals, adoption protocols; the list is long and varied.

"If I had to look at the ethical make-up of the veterinary profession, I would say that it is really quite high. Some things we don't want to change are our ethical values. They should be rock solid principles that we live by."

So, what's on his mind?

One ethical concern that has become more pervasive in American society, Osborne says, is putting profit motives too far forward in relation to veterinary medicine's role as a service profession.

"We are seeing more and more emphasis on fees for profit rather than fees for patients. I am concerned about that. There is nothing wrong with generating fees for service. The big question is: What is the intent? Is the intent to get adequate salaries for staff and equip a functioning hospital, or is the intent to improve the bottom line so we can become wealthy?"

And while veterinarians' salaries are lower than other healthcare professionals', the observation is simply one of balance between the delivery of patient care and profit.

"There is also great need to educate the public about the costs associated with the delivery of veterinary care. I don't think they appreciate how much goes into it," he adds.

Of mirrors and candles

Credited with more than 43 awards, author of hundreds of scientific articles during the course of a 40-year career and the founder of UM's Minnesota Urolith Center, it's safe to say that Osborne won the credentials of a sage medicine man.

"If you look at it, there are two ways to be: One is to be a candle and the other to be a mirror. Most of the time, we are mirrors; we are reflecting other's knowledge that we gain. It's important to be a candle and generate new information if there is going to be advancement. I think it is important for all of us to accept that responsibility whether we are in private practice, universities or industry and that is to make things better," he says.

"The best teaching hospitals in the world not only use contemporary knowledge, they create it."

His greatest learning experience was learning how to learn. It was his freedom that was fueled by his lifelong, insatiable curiosity on how things work.

"You can move beyond talking about what everyone else knows," he says. "When you come to embrace that, it offers a kind of freedom that you can create your own thoughts and ideas and you are not feeling that you have to parrot someone else's all the time."

While he admits that reflecting and understanding others' knowledge is important, creating new knowledge should be on everyone's list of lifelong pursuits.

The quest for new veterinary knowledge is not confined to academic institutions, but it certainly extends to any doctor pursuing the cure of a sick animal.

"In textbooks you see prototype disease; in reality, there's no one disease that involves the prototype. Just like there are no two patients alike in disease; they are all different."

In a battle

In 1995, Osborne was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, a progressive neurogenerative disorder. His 10-year battle with the illness has slowed his body, but not his mind.

"We don't always have a choice of the situation we are put into, but we have a choice on how we are going to respond to it."

In the early stages of the disease, Osborne says he tried to mask its symptoms. But now he talks about it openly. It's an acceptance, and he believes it affords him an opportunity to learn more about life. "One of the advantages is you learn what it's like to deal with a disability that is very visible and how others react to it. Some people are very empathic and kind; other people just want you out of the way. It's important to feel because I don't want to do that to others.

"When people ask me how I am doing, I always say, 'First rate.' Whether I am or not, my response is a positive one," he says.

Osborne adds that a debilitating disease also makes one conserve his or her energy. "If you have a finite amount of energy, you have to choose how you will use it. What you don't do is use it negatively. You don't get caught up with being mad at something or lose it by losing sleep. There is a negative reaction to adverse circumstances. You choose to not become involved with that, you move on. It has taught me that."

Unmasking uroliths

In 1981, Osborne founded of the Minnesota Urolith Center. Through this free service, he says, they encouraged private practitioners to send urinary stones for analysis. Like a crystal, the idea grew. In 2004, the center analyzed 42,000 stones form 48 countries from all species of animals including the major species but also from tortoises and whales. The list encompasses 90 species in a goal to investigate the causes, treatment and prevention of debilitating and often fatal urinary diseases in animals, including FLUTD, stones, bacterial infections, high-blood pressure and kidney failure.

"Our vision is the surgical removal of stones will someday be of historic interest. That's our goal. We are going to figure out ways to non-invasively prevent stones from occurring."

UM veterinarians have already accomplished it with struvite, cystine and urate stones. Proving much more difficult is calcium oxalate, but the work continues. While the service has been funded by corporate sponsorship (Hill's Pet Nutrition), it is free to veterinarians.

"What we charge for is knowledge so we can do epidemiology studies. By collecting and evaluating epidemiologic data of these naturally occurring stones, this allows us to identify risk factors we can share with the profession on how to manage disease."

And as veterinary medicine becomes even more specialized in disciplines, Osborne is steadfast in his belief that veterinarians should treat patients as a whole.

"When I see a patient, I see the whole patient. Not only do I see their kidney, I see their left knee and right knee. What we don't want to do is end up taking care of diseases and not patients."

For Osborne, his greatest professional accomplishments resides in the education of others. "Just like people contributed to the education of me. We are products of someone else's thoughts. We learn that way, and it's important for us to perpetuate that."

Editor's Note:

Journalists are taught in the first days of their education that a news publication is meant to mirror society and report stories in a fair and balanced way. It remains a professional ethos for the editors of DVM Newsmagazine. With it comes an important principle called objectivity. When Dr. Carl A. Osborne received his second major award in 2005, I found myself at my own ethical crossroads. Clearly this veterinarian has already accomplished a lifetime of achievement. The question became: Could I objectively write about a long-time friend and adviser to DVM Newsmagazine with the same sense of objectivity and rigor that I would approach other stories? The answer is probably not, yet it certainly doesn't lessen the impact and importance his message holds for veterinarians. This month, we will let Dr. Osborne do the talking. I simply have the honor of telling his story.

Daniel R. Verdon


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