An Advocate for Pet Health and Perpetual Learning

Two veterinarians examine golden retriever dog in exam room
In this 2008 photo, clinical instructor Sandi Sawchuk and a veterinary medical student conduct an exam of a UW Veterinary Care patient. “I put teaching as my top priority – both pet owners and students,” says Sawchuk.

On Nov. 2, 1987, Sandi Sawchuk began her first day with the School of Veterinary Medicine and UW Veterinary Care, helping to establish the hospital’s Primary Care service. This April, she retired after nearly 33 years of loyal service. Below, Sawchuk reflects on her career.

On Call: What comes to mind as you think back on all of the patients and clients you’ve served and the relationships you’ve developed?

Sawchuk: I put teaching as my top priority – both pet owners and students. My method often involved asking the students questions in the exam room with the owner present. Yes, it put the students on their toes, but it also helped the owners see our thought process as veterinarians.

Veterinarian Sandi Sawchuk with her dogs
Sawchuk enjoys time at home with her three English bulldogs.

A wise vet early in my career said that it was okay to say “I don’t know” to an owner as long as you then spent the time to either find someone who did (one of the joys of working at the vet school) or find out on your own.

Primary Care also allows for bonding since it’s a cradle to grave service. Knowing and remembering details about families and their pets and seeing kids grow up (even one who eventually graduated from the SVM!) made their experience personal. I was never afraid to show emotion — I’ve shed lots of tears with owners. I almost always sat on the floor with the pet, and later a short stool. I never wanted to come across as being above someone.

Many people also know of you from your local media appearances, answering myriad pet questions. How did you get started in this arena?

My first experience with TV was while doing my residency. The local PBS station wanted someone to discuss short topics to fill a five-minute void after “All Creatures Great and Small,” the James Herriot-based show.

Dr. Easterday, the founding SVM dean, also encouraged me to try other things such as writing a column for the Madison newspaper. His advice of write like you are talking to someone paid off and I did a weekly column for years. I loved doing radio. TV was fun except for the makeup!

“Primary Care also allows for bonding since it’s a cradle to grave service. Knowing and remembering details about families and their pets and seeing kids grow up (even one who eventually graduated from the SVM!) made their experience personal.”

What did you most enjoy about teaching the next generation of your profession?

I live by the motto to learn something new every day — even now that I am retired! I tried to have that rub off on students. For me, I loved seeing ah-ha moments, whether it be the first time they express anal sacs or being complimented by an owner for doing a good job with their pet.

Some of my best learning moments come from students. It gets back to “I don’t know” and giving them a chance to teach me.

What advice do you have for future veterinarians?

Don’t be afraid to say no. You can’t please everyone and there will be those rare colleagues or clients who eat you alive and spit out your soul. I have seen so many colleagues burn out early in their careers due to not setting limits.

In a volunteer role, Sawchuk and her dogs walk along the Rock River parks in Janesville to encourage the geese to stay in the river
In a volunteer role, Sawchuk and her dogs walk along Rock River parks in Janesville to encourage geese to stay in the river.

I also preached to my students (and hopefully demonstrated) that there is life outside of veterinary medicine. Have friends outside the field, volunteer for non-animal organizations, develop hobbies, and take care of yourself. Put family first — both two- and four-legged — above all else.

How are your own animal family members enjoying the extra time with you?

Right now I have a relatively small pet family compared to previous times in my life. Just three needy English bulldogs and a 19-year-old cat.

My dogs and I have a volunteer job in Janesville to walk along the Rock River parks and encourage the geese to stay in the river. We are all in the best shape we have ever been!


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