In conversation with OVC Alumnus Dr. Ira Zaslow


December 15, 2022

Dr. Ira Zaslow

Dr. Ira Zaslow has dedicated his career to advancing the discipline of veterinary emergency and critical care medicine. One of the four founding fathers of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS) and the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care, the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) DVM 1970 alumnus edited the Veterinary Trauma and Critical Care textbook in 1984. A decade later, the Zaslow Distinguished Service Award was created at VECCS, recognizing individuals demonstrating exceptional commitment and dedication while making significant contributions to the practice of veterinary emergency critical care. 

Could you tell us why you chose the Ontario Veterinary College to pursue your veterinary medicine education?  

They say that timing is everything in life and this is certainly true in my veterinary career. I was languishing in a foreign school 15,000 miles from home when I received my acceptance letter from OVC in 1966. The date to reply had passed but I was determined and called the registrar via Trans-Oceanic telephone. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) had changed the requirements to two years of undergraduate study before entering veterinary school and Canada was still using the old grade 13 as one-year pre-vet.  

To fill the class, OVC accepted international students. I could not have been more honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to be a part of the oldest veterinary college in North America, rated number one in the world.  

Many people describe their career in veterinary medicine as a calling from a young age. Was there a pivotal or an “aha” moment that led you to pursue a career in veterinary medicine?  

I wanted to be a veterinarian as far back as I can remember. I was about seven years old when I started hanging around a family friend’s practice and continued to do so until college. In addition, I had worked at riding stables for years, on a cattle ranch, and around the backstretch of Pimlico Racecourse, which is the home of the Preakness, the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown.  

What advice do you have for DVM students who would like to follow a similar career path? What attributes, values and skillsets are most valuable in critical care medicine?  

I think all students who want to pursue a career in veterinary medicine should keep the following few things in mind. First, believe in yourself and believe that you can achieve your goals. Furthermore, always be a good listener and surround yourself with the best and the brightest in the field you wish to pursue. Above all be tenacious, be regimented but flexible to new ideas as you move through the profession. Reach for the stars. And ask yourself, do you want to be the best?  

For those interested in critical care and emergency medicine, they must realize it’s a multi-disciplinary specialty that is constantly evolving. The commitment to be a criticalist can be overpowering. It’s definitely not a 9-to-5 job. When you walk through the doors for your shift you must come with a sense of excitement knowing that today’s challenges will be great, and when you finish your shift, you need to ask yourself if you have done the best job possible.  

Mentorship is such an important component of the veterinary community.Who has influenced you the most and why? As a mentor yourself, can you talk about why this is so vital in veterinary medicine?  

Mentorship is so important, especially in veterinary medicine and particularly for these young graduating doctors. Very few of us have gone through life without somebody impacting our lives in a positive way to help us develop along our career paths.  

I could write a two-volume book about the professors and educators both at OVC and beyond who helped me in my formative years. Here are just a few who made a difference in my life:  

Dr. John H. Ballantine, professor of anatomy, taught me everything about anatomy and the art of teaching. He also offered me a job building specimens for teaching, so many we built a separate room (museum) to display them in. This job truly helped me make ends meet as a veterinary student with a wife, two children, and a third on the way.  

Dr. James Archibald, professor and head of surgery, made it possible for me to be a part of at least 200 surgeries. “Archi” strongly encouraged me to stay at the school and become board certified in surgery. Unfortunately, an untimely family death required us to move home to Boston.  

Dr. William G. Whittick was a private practitioner in Toronto, an alumnus of the school and board certified in surgery. Bill introduced me to a new rising specialty in human medicine called critical care medicine. It is interesting to note that both in the human and veterinary fields, critical care medicine was initially started by surgeons. It was all about patient care! Dr. Whittick guided me for the next few years in trauma surgery and in the developing specialty of critical care medicine.  

Dr. William C. Shoemaker, MD, board certified surgeon and one of the founding fathers of human critical care medicine, guided me for 4 1/2 decades in critical care medicine and its teachings. He sponsored me into his group the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM). With acceptance into the society, I was the first veterinarian to join the human group and held that honor for almost two decades.  

Dr. Forrest M. Bird, MD, the father of human respiratory medicine taught me everything to know in the field of ventilation and respiratory medicine up until about 2013. That’s a long time to have such mentorship.  

As a result of knowing these mentors, I was able to learn from many more. Bill Whittick, Fred Sattler, Bob Knowles, and I formed the Critical Care Society in 1969 and incorporated it in 1974. It was re-incorporated in 1984 into the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (VECCS). Today we boast more than 8,000 members worldwide. In 1989 we established the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care (ACVECC) recognized by the AVMA.  

As a student veterinarian, you were named the national chairman of the student chapters of the AVMA, can you tell us about your endeavors in this role to help promote access to veterinary education?  

In 1969, the AVMA appointed me national chairman of all the North American student chapters and sponsored a meeting in Minneapolis that July. I represented OVC alongside Bob Jack, an OVC junior and president of the student body. None of the things I accomplished at that meeting would have been possible without the support of OVC Dean Dennis Howell. Among our accomplishments we introduced and unanimously passed a resolution on “affirmative action” regarding the current admissions policies at all veterinary schools. [During the 1960s, a series of affirmative action policies were put in place in the United States to address long histories of discrimination in employment and education and to increase opportunities for underrepresented members of society.] It was first acted upon by Dean Pritchard of University of California (UC) Davis who succeeded in changing the admission requirements at Davis. Other schools soon followed, although there was some staunch resistance by a few schools. Dean Howell and Dean Pritchard were strong advocates and supporters of what we had done.  

Today critical care is a vital component of veterinary medicine. What drove your passion to develop this area of veterinary medicine and to work with colleagues to form the veterinary critical care society?  

I believe, both in human and veterinary medicine, surgeons got into this specialty quicker than any other disciplines. Critical care medicine is a multi-disciplinary specialty, and soon after surgeons made the initial move to improve patient care, anesthesiologists followed suit and then other disciplines began to take notice.  

My background was in trauma surgery, so I saw three things initially that were presenting problems: first, stabilizing the patient prior to surgery; second, getting the patient through surgery; and third, monitoring the patient’s recovery. I always felt strongly that if this specialty in veterinary medicine was going to be a reality, it would only work in an integrated, collaborative clinical practice model such as in the Mayo Clinic.  

I also saw many parallels with human critical care. Proponents of critical care medicine both in the human and veterinary fields shared much in common and experienced many of the same setbacks in our respective specialties in the early years. It’s simply all about patient care! 

Originally published in the Fall 2022 issue of The Crest, the research, teaching and health care magazine of the Ontario Veterinary College. 

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