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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

OSU Founding Faculty Member Blazed a Trail For Women Surgeons to Follow

July 31st, 2014
Pam (Wagner) von Matthiessen was one of the founding faculty at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Pam (Wagner) von Matthiessen was one of the founding faculty at OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Women make up 57% of the student population of U.S. colleges. In veterinary medicine, women hold 78% of the seats, and now outnumber men in veterinary practice.

When Pam Wagner vonMatthiessen graduated from the UC Davis veterinary program in 1976, it was a different story. Women were rare in veterinary medicine, especially large animal medicine. But vonMatthiessen was a lifelong horse lover with a dream of being an equine surgeon, so she didn’t let the prevailing norms stop her.

After receiving her DVM, vonMatthiessen went on to an internship and residency in equine surgery at WSU under the mentorship of Dr. Barrie Grant. “At that time being a woman in any large animal field was a novelty,” she says. “I distinctly remember hearing ranchers coming in and saying to the receptionist ‘Don’t give me one of those female vets’.  I decided to take it as a challenge and see if I couldn’t change their minds.  And it worked!  I found that by being understanding of their reluctance, listening to their story and being compassionate, a lot of prejudice could be overcome.  By the time I left WSU I had a loyal following.”

VonMatthiessen was lucky to have supportive mentors, both at WSU and, later, at OSU and Tufts. “In the academic setting, which at that time was largely male, I do feel women in large animal surgery had to work harder to be taken seriously,” she says. “My mentors, Dr. Barrie Grant, Dr. Michael Shires [OSU Hospital Director] and Dr. Frank Loew always pushed me to be all I could be, to publish and to give lectures and symposiums, and to take on novel research projects that would help me advance academically in the equine field.”

One of those projects was germinated at a Las Vegas convention on human orthopedic surgery. In 1979, vonMatthiessen and Grant had a dinner conversation about Wobbler Disease with human surgeon Dr. George Bagby. He suggested that human medical techniques using spinal decompression might help horses as well.

That conversation blossomed into a collaboration, where Bagby worked with vonMatthiessen and Grant to develop and test spine stabilization techniques in horses that turned out to be very effective in treating Wobblers. “I went on to do my Master’s thesis on the surgical correction of equine cervical spinal cord compression in horses,” says vonMatthiessen. “The technique has come a long way since then.  At first, we used bone dowels taken from the equine hip bone to stabilize the column.  Since then, a basket of steel, now titanium, has been developed.” [See Animal Connection for related story.]

VonMatthiessen went on to become board-certified in equine surgery in 1984. “She was a ground breaker”, says Dr. Jill Parker, current CVM equine surgeon. “When I started my internship in 1983, there was only one woman (Midge Leitch, 1982) who was board-certified and doing equine surgery. It was very helpful to me to see someone doing what I wanted to do.”

VonMatthiessen joined the faculty at OSU CVM when it was only a few years old. “OSU veterinary school was a very exciting place to be in the 1980s. You really got to know the vet students well, as there were so few of them,” she says.

“There were three large animal surgeons then and we all shared the work load equally, a real team.  If a colic came in, we all came in to help.  We all brought different experiences with us from other places.  Dr. Shires was head of clinics and a great mentor.  He was a very hands-on leader and we all learned from him.”

In 1991, Tufts University invited vonMatthiessen to become Chief of Staff in their large animal hospital. “I felt that to do that, as the first women to hold such a position, was important enough to have me leave my favorite place, Oregon State University, College of Veterinary Medicine.”

With a flourishing career, and international reputation in equine surgery, vonMatthiessen made another bold move in 1994 when she enrolled in human medical school. “I have always loved medicine and felt diagnosis and treatment were my “sweet spots”; and I had always enjoyed people coming in with their horses and felt, at times, I could help owners as much as their horses,” she says. “So I applied to medical school, deciding if I could do both human and animal medicine, that would be the epitome of my aspirations.”

VonMatthiessen graduated from Wright State University medical school and did a residency at Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio.  She then took an internal medicine position in rural Colorado.  “Because my human practice was so busy, I never realized my dream of doing both human and veterinary medicine at the same time.  But I’ve had a lot of ranchers come in and asked to be seen by the ‘vet’,” she says.

In early July of this year, vonMatthiessen’s husband surprised her with a trip down memory lane: her first visit to OSU CVM in 25 years. Former Dean Loren Koller helped arrange the visit, and Dr. Jill Parker made sure former students and colleagues of vonMatthiessen knew she was coming.

Dr. Michael Huber, Dr. Pam von Matthiessen, Malta von Matthiessen, and Dr. Tom Riebold

Dr. Michael Huber, Dr. Pam von Matthiessen, Malta von Matthiessen, and Dr. Tom Riebold

Dr. Michael Huber, who did his residency under vonMatthiessen, greeted her with a big hug. His memories of working long hours as a resident are good ones thanks to her. “She had the incredible ability to say, ‘you stay here and do this, this and this . . . but she could do it in a way that made you smile. She was that good of a boss.”

He also respected her skill as a surgeon. Today, when surgeons need to remove loose bone fragments in a joint, they use an arthroscope to view the inside of the joint on a screen. “In those days we didn’t have an arthroscope so we made incisions,” says Huber, “Pam had the uncanny ability to make a very small directly over the fragment. She just knew where the problem was.”

That level of skill also made vonMatthiessen a fast surgeon, which was a benefit to the horse and the owner. “I recall each of us simultaneously doing the exact same surgery on opposite stifles in the same horse, and her being finished in half the time,” says Huber.

VonMatthiessen thoroughly enjoyed her visit to OSU and was amazed by all the changes at CVM since her tenure here. “Most notable are the addition of a state-of-the-art small animal hospital, an incredible imaging center with a CT scanner, fluoroscopy and numerous ultrasound capabilities,” she says.

Now retired in Ohio, vonMatthiessen plans to do pro-bono work at a free clinic in Dayton and also serve on the Admissions Committee at Wright State School of Medicine. “I want to advocate for diverse applicants like I was,” she says.

Her courage, and willingness to tackle the unknown, provided one of the lessons that Dr. Huber learned under her mentorship: He remembers her saying, “Don’t ever be discouraged by somebody not creating a road. The value of something not having been done before, is that you can create the methodology.”






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