Tar Heel of the Week

Driven veterinarian's specialty is the sickest of critters

Staff WriterMarch 7, 2010 

  • Birthplace and date: Albany, N.Y., July 20, 1962

    Family: Wife, Lisa Vlastelica; kids Joe, 10; Carly, 8; Glenna, 5

    Education: B.S. in biology from Cornell University, DMV (veterinary degree) from Cornell University, interned at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Canada, residency in medical oncology at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine; radiation oncology training at University of Zurich in Switzerland (1996-1997)

    Career: Visiting assistant professor at N.C. State University from 1992 to 1995, assistant professor at Tufts University from 1997 to 2000, assistant professor at N.C. State from 2000 to 2004; joined Veterinary Specialty Hospital in 2004; former president of the Veterinary Cancer Society.

— You've got to move fast to keep up with Dave Ruslander.

Striding with a powerful gait through the halls of the Veterinary Specialty Hospital of the Carolinas in Cary, Ruslander checks on sick animals, reciting their names, the details of their cases and confirming orders for their care.

With his stethoscope draped around his neck, he moves up and down the concrete steps of the two-story building, traveling between the exam rooms and the basement-level cancer ward filled with big machines capable of doing CAT scans and radiation treatment on the sickest four-legged friends.

A leader in the emerging field of animal oncology, Ruslander has done stints in academia at Tufts University and N.C. State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. He's a past president of the Veterinary Cancer Society and a popular speaker and consultant.

Recently, he worked as a consultant in the development of a melanoma vaccine for dogs, which was approved for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cancer in pets is becoming more common, partially because people are taking better care of their animals, so they are living longer, Ruslander says. As a result, more emphasis is being placed on the treatment of animal cancer.

"It used to be that I'd tell people I was a veterinary oncologist, and they didn't even know dogs got cancer," Ruslander says.

In his ward at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Cary, Ruslander is at home. The ward could easily be mistaken for a state-of-the-art human radiology clinic, rather than one that treats pets.

Though treatment for animal cancer can cost more than $5,000, Ruslander tries to help as many animals as he can. The hospital where he works has a partnership with the SPCA of Wake County to provide free care for some animals.

Along with the contribution of care, it's the way that the animals are treated that make the veterinary hospital stand out, said Lisa Kroll, associate executive director of the SPCA.

"I have never felt as though they're treating these homeless animals any differently than their regular, paying clients that come from, in some cases, several states away. ... That doesn't come part and parcel with the donated services. We don't have expectations. If someone is offering these services to us, the services themselves are what we're looking for. We don't expect the red carpet to be rolled out. But the fact that they do really means a lot."

His patients' owners also praise Ruslander.

Steve Lamb and his wife,Judy, drove their golden retriever Maggie from their home in Goldsboro to see Ruslander last year. She was diagnosed with nasal carcinoma and treated at Veterinary Specialty Hospital. Maggie died in October, and it was later discovered that the cancer had spread to her spine, but the Lambs say the treatment they received was top-rate.

"I've been extremely thankful I've never been sick much in my life," Steve Lamb said. "But the few times I have, I've been to some physicians who could only dream of having the care and manner that he has. ... If I was extremely wealthy, I would donate a great amount of money to his cause."

Staying in motion

Ruslander, 47, describes himself as "very much a carpe diem kind of person" and "a perfectionist, but I'm not obsessive-compulsive."

Tall, slender, slightly balding and constantly moving, he talks fast, too. Attached at the hip to his iPhone, he says he's never more than a phone call away from family in Raleigh, friends or work. And though that can make for a hectic life, he says that's the way he likes it.

His wife, Lisa Vlastelica, says it's his natural operating mode.

"He's like a shark," she says. "He constantly has to be moving. If he stops moving, he will fall asleep."

Friends say Ruslander carries an intensity with him whether he's working or playing.

"He doesn't do anything halfway," says Laurel Williams, an associate professor of oncology at NCSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"Many, many years ago, he decided he wanted to get in shape. Most people would say, 'OK, I'm going to start exercising and stuff like that.' Well Dave didn't. He ran a marathon, like, six months later. He decided he wanted to eat a little better, so he became a vegan for two years. It's a good thing he has skin, because otherwise he'd explode."

But Ruslander says that's the only way to approach his life and his work.

"When you look at the numbers, and you look at someone and tell them their dog has a 10 percent chance of living a year, what does that mean?" he says. "It means nothing. Because I don't know if this dog will be in that 10 percent or this dog will be in the 10 percent. So I treat them all."

Early love of animals

Ruslander always wanted to be a veterinarian.

Despite the fact that his mother wasn't fond of animals, "she indulged me," he recalls. "I had an Irish setter named Red - about as un-unique as you can get - some rabbits, ducks, gerbils."

His own three children, ages 5, 8 and 10, have a mini menagerie: three cats, a blue-fronted Amazon parrot and a Papillon dog named Lucky.

"Vets aren't supposed to name their dogs Lucky," he says. "But I had three kids who agreed on it, and that's not lucky. That's a miracle."

Ruslander says he hadn't originally envisioned going into oncology. Growing up in New York state, his love was for horses, and he always thought he'd work with them.

"When I was in my internship in Saskatoon 20 years ago, there were only a handful of people working in oncology at the time, so I saw it as a niche," he says.

After his residency, Ruslander began looking for an academic job, and the only one in veterinary oncology was at NCSU.

He had already met his wife, Lisa, during his studies at Cornell. They were married here in 1995. She also works in medicine, but with people, as a staff pharmacist at a Duke clinic in Durham.

Following three years at N.C. State's vet school, Ruslander took a detour to Switzerland to train specifically in radio-oncology at the University of Zurich's Department of Veterinary Medicine. He then taught for a few years at Tufts University in Massachusetts before returning to N.C. State to teach. Four years later, he was recruited by a vet school classmate to join the Veterinary Specialty Hospital.

The hospital needed a cancer expert who was also a team player and collaborator, says Kevin Concannon, one of the owners of VSH. Ruslander fit the bill.

Positive vibes

Treating beloved pets with serious diseases may seem like depressing work, but Ruslander says he actually finds it to be a positive profession.

"When you're a general practitioner, you see happy dogs with ticks and fleas, but here you see sick dogs," he says. "But mean people don't treat dogs for cancer. Here, you see people who really care about their animals."

Even in cases where the owners cannot afford the treatment, or the animal is too sick to help, "we can still try to provide pain control or ease the pain so that people have time to say goodbye."

Ruslander is such a devotee of the carpe diem approach to living that even a major health scare didn't change his outlook on life. About a year ago, he woke up one night with a terrible headache.

"I took him out and put him in the car," recalls Lisa. "We pulled out of our driveway and weren't more than two minutes up the road and he turns to me and says, 'You know, I think I know what this is,' and then he had a seizure"

Ruslander didn't have many side effects from the seizure except soreness, and doctors were never able to discover what triggered the episode. He took three weeks off work to recover, but now a year later does not show any signs of slowing down.

Williams said that episode showed her how beloved he is.

"The e-mails came from across the country. Everyone knew. He has two friends who he's had since his college days and they were here within 12 hours. It was unbelievable. It was like something had happened to royalty."

The episode made Ruslander even more aware of working on his friendships. His wife says he spends much of his limited free time sending e-mail to friends and calling them to catch up.

"He's still friends with people he went to kindergarten with," Vlastelica says. "His favorite quote is from 'Jerry Maguire' - 'The key to this business is personal relationships.' Dicky Fox. It's all about making that personal connection and maintaining it."

sue.stock@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4649

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