Sharon Palmer attributes many things to the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM): the care of her beloved pets, the opportunity to be part of the teaching of tomorrow’s veterinarians, and, on one fateful Halloween evening in downtown Madison, meeting the man who would become her husband.
You see, it was the SVM that drew Sharon to attend UW-Madison. As a high school student graduating in 1984, she learned of UW’s new School of Veterinary Medicine, founded in 1983, and hoped to be among the school’s first few classes of alumni.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian. I can’t ever remember a time when animals weren’t important to me,” says Sharon, who enjoyed the company of everything from rabbits and horses to chickens and geese to pigs and sheep at her family home.
Though veterinary medical school didn’t pan out (“because math and science are by no means my forte,” she quips), Sharon earned a bachelor’s degree in human ecology. And other stars aligned at UW. In October of her sophomore year, as she departed her dorm for State Street’s storied Halloween festivities, Sharon, dressed as a genie, crossed paths with TJ Palmer, costumed as a doctor.
Five years later, Sharon (maiden name Nienhaus) and TJ would be married. Recently, they celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary. For more than half of that span, the SVM has been close to their heart.
A Family Affair
In the early years of Sharon and TJ’s marriage, they welcomed into their home three rescue dogs – Bo, Onyx, and Pike – and a cat, Chester. All then patients of UW Veterinary Care’s Primary Care service, the crew would often visit together.
“I’d schedule the appointment for three dogs and a cat and we’d come in with our whole clan,” Sharon says. “Chester was more doglike than catlike some days, so he was just like one of the pack.”
As the years went on, the Palmers were inspired to give back, and in 1998 they made their first gift by way of a $5 donation. They have been consistent givers ever since, supporting the school and UW Veterinary Care for nearly 20 years. Each month, Sharon sits down at her desk to pen a handwritten check to the SVM.
“The vet school has always meant something to me. Giving to the SVM was just a good fit and then over time it became a habit,” Sharon says. “I have it in my planner to send a donation every month because it’s easier to spread it out. It’s small amounts, but you know if everybody gave a penny, you’d have a ton of money. And it’s increased over the years as we’ve been able to increase what we have.”
Invested in Animal and Human Medicine
While the monthly gifts have become routine for the Palmers, the impact of their donations is anything but. Over the years, they have supported cutting-edge cancer research and treatment, including the hospital’s procurement of a TomoTherapy unit to precisely deliver radiation therapy to cat and dog tumors. (UW Veterinary Care is the first of only two veterinary medical hospitals in the world to offer TomoTherapy as a treatment option for pets, and the hospital’s successful clinical trials led to widespread use of TomoTherapy in human medicine.)
Most recently, the Palmers doubled their monthly contribution to include the Animals Need Heroes Too building expansion campaign. And they have included the SVM in their estate plans, as well.
“Cancer in and of itself affects so many people and animals across the globe, and I think the more money that can go into understanding, treating, and researching it is only better for everybody,” says Sharon. “I don’t necessarily know if we can cure it, but I think we can manage it and maybe fight it through other methodologies by understanding it sooner.”
Ruthanne Chun, the SVM’s associate dean for clinical affairs and teaching hospital director, says donors like Sharon and TJ are a source of inspiration. “Their constant and faithful support of the hospital and more recent specific gifts toward TomoTherapy and the Animal Cancer Treatment and Research fund exemplify that they are joining us ‘for the long haul,’” says Chun. “This is the mindset we take not only in caring for our patients, but also what we have to keep in mind as we investigate new and better ways to diagnose and treat cancer.”
After relocating for a time to Missouri and Oklahoma, the Palmers have now returned to Wisconsin and are back as clients of UW Veterinary Care, this time with a new group of dogs, each representing one of the locations where the couple lived while TJ, previously a registered nurse, pursued training to become a physician.
Atlas, a 12-year-old rat terrier, was adopted in Kirksville, Missouri, while TJ was in medical school; Titan, an 80-pound Great Dane lab mix, hails from Tulsa, where TJ completed his medical residency; and Athena, a youthful “mix of a mix,” one day showed up in the Palmers’ yard in Joplin, the location of TJ’s first job as an internal medicine physician.
“For us to be able to use the vet school for our primary care and to give the students the experience they need is very, very important to us,” says Sharon.