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Becoming A Vet In Her Mid-30s, Doris Sievers Decided To Change Her Life And Enter WSU’s Demanding Veterinarian Program

Doris Sievers has a rehearsed answer for those occasions when someone asks why, at age 36, she gets up early every weekday and drives from Spokane’s South Hill down to Pullman to go to school.

She says it’s because she has finally decided what she wants to be when she grows up.

“It’s not really that simple,” she said with the hint of a smile.

But it is close enough.

Sievers had been thinking about becoming a veterinarian for years. The idea of helping animals has appealed to her for as long as she can remember. And now, in her second year of the four-year graduate program at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, she is on her way.

But when she first made up her mind to go for it, the affable farmer’s wife had only a high school diploma in her pocket. She hadn’t even begun her undergraduate studies.

She had been working as a waitress and bartender. (She still waits on tables Saturday and Sunday mornings at the Harvester restaurant in Spangle.)

Now in case you aren’t clued in about the academic pecking order, here’s the deal. Getting into vet school can be a long shot even for excellent students. There are only 27 veterinary-training programs in the country. And it’s often said that it is easier to gain admittance to a medical school.

So skeptics might have regarded Sievers’ plan as almost laughable.

No one is laughing now.

“I never had any doubt that I could do the course work,” she said.

Taking on a heavy load of classes, she zoomed to a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at WSU in three years - driving from Spokane and back every day. Then she was one of some 1,200 applicants to earn one of the 70 spots in the WSU vet school class due to graduate in the year 2000.

She likes the company she’s keeping.

“I think the vast majority of people in my class are approaching it from, No. 1, a love of animals and, No. 2, wanting to be able to fix what’s broken,” she said.

But when it is suggested that Sievers has it tougher than her classmates because of her time-consuming daily commute, she waves such flattery away. She says she is awed by the single parents in her class. And she admires the students who went straight from high school to college with veterinary medicine in their sights. “When I got out of high school, I just didn’t have a clear career goal in mind,” she recalled.

Though she had been a straight-A student at her high school just outside Reno, Nev., Sievers struggled for years with a lack of self-confidence. “I don’t recall it actually coming from anywhere, but I had a horrible inferiority complex.”

She got over it.

By the time she married Paul Sievers 10 years ago, she knew she would be going to college before long. She had begun visualizing the good she could do if she put her mind to it.

She wanted to find a way to reflect her appreciation for the unconditional love animals often offer us. “Dogs love you no matter what you look like, no matter what kind of mood you’re in, no matter what kind of day you’ve had.”

And the challenge of working with patients that can’t say “I’m feeling a little nauseated” appealed to her.

“The diagnostic process is really, really interesting to me,” she said. “I enjoy that, trying to figure out what could be wrong.”

Sievers’ face takes on a knowing expression when the subject of James Herriot’s books comes up. She knows that more than a few vet students cite “All Creatures Great and Small” and other volumes as having played a role in their choice of vocation.

But she also knows that the celebrated British veterinarian did not paint a warm and fuzzy picture of an animal doctor’s life.

“From his perspective, veterinary medicine was very difficult, very demanding, very time-consuming, and you got virtually nothing out of it except the personal satisfaction of having accomplished something worthwhile,” she said.

It says something about Doris Sievers that a warts-and-all portrayal of her chosen career doesn’t faze her.

“I’ve never had second-thoughts,” she said.

She expects to have piled up about $35,000 in school-loan debt by the time she’s through. (It would be more, but she has won some academic scholarships.) And, of course, she expects to be able to pay that off. But she has never had any illusions about getting rich.

This time of year, it’s still dark when Sievers heads out to her Toyota pickup not long after 6 a.m. to start the trip south. Her husband, who farms a third-generation family spread near Spangle, often leaves about the same time.

“He has been really, really supportive,” she said.

This year, Doris hasn’t been traveling to Pullman alone. A well-behaved rescued racetrack greyhound named Banner rides shotgun.

Sievers’ voice softens when she talks about the muscular short-haired canine. And everything about the dog’s demeanor suggests that the feeling is mutual.

Rather than being led, Banner likes to carry her leash in her mouth.

Weather has never kept Sievers from making the trip, though she admits there have been a few wintry days when she probably should have stayed home.

She’s never gotten a ticket between Spokane and Pullman. And she is slightly mystified by those who find that remarkable.

“Stay under the speed limit, and it won’t happen,” she said.

You might say Doris Sievers, a woman willing to stay focused on a goal that started out being seven or eight years away, isn’t into cutting corners.

Sometimes she arrives at WSU in time to say hello to a ferret named Pugsley, a blind owl and several other resident animals.

The first two years of vet school feature a lot of time in the classroom and in labs. The third and fourth years emphasize clinical experience.

After getting home, she studies a couple of hours a night, sometimes more.

There isn’t a lot of time for TV watching, skiing, reading science fiction or for adding to her collections of objects adorned with dolphins, dragons or unicorns.

The concept of spare time and leisure activity has pretty much been a summers-only affair of late. She and Paul attend a lot of Spokane Indians baseball games.

Right now, her life revolves around school.

In addition to everything else that implies, Sievers has assumed leadership roles in undertakings ranging from the vet school Halloween party to planning a 1999 symposium that will be attended by veterinary students from across the country.

One recent day’s classes focused on subjects ranging from obstructive cardiac anomalies to microorganisms that can cause diarrhea in livestock.

Most ‘90s vet students are women. But on this day, Sievers found herself sitting in the lecture hall with a group of male students.

It’s probably safe to say that anyone who gets into vet school knows how to absorb information and take tests. But for Sievers, this process is not an onerous chore. She is genuinely curious.

“I like finding out how things work and why things happen,” she said.

Which isn’t to say school lacks stress for her. When you’ve spent this much time and this much money, that old NASA saying comes to mind: Failure is not an option.

During her lunch break, she and classmate Alison Brendel took Banner and three other greyhounds to a nearby fenced athletic field on the WSU campus. Then they let the dogs run. The two women seemed delighted as the astonishingly quick pooches frolicked at warp speed.

More than once, Sievers cut loose with her short-duration rapid-fire laugh.

Her friend looked at her and grinned.

“I consider myself more the exception than I do Doris,” said Brendel, who is 21 and from the Tri-Cities. “Very few people in our class are actually my age. It’s never been an issue. We’re all in this together.”

After taking the dogs back to the well-lighted kennel at the school’s impressive year-old veterinary hospital, the two women returned to the athletic field with plastic bags. Then they matter-of-factly collected greyhound droppings.

One passer-by, a young man, looked at them as if they were crazy.

They didn’t notice.

But it might have been fitting if someone else could have said, “Hey, pal, someday when a beloved pet is hurt or seriously sick and has a scared look in its eyes and you are about to panic because you don’t know what to do, you’re going to need some help. And one of those women over there just might be the one to put a gentle hand on the frightened animal and say, ‘It’s OK. Easy now. Let’s take a look.”’

At the restaurant where Sievers works on weekends, some of the regulars already have started asking her for veterinary advice. Others inquire with mock impatience about when she’s finally going to be through with school.

Just a couple more years. No time at all.

And then Sievers knows what will happen.

You see, there’s this friend of hers whose little girl couldn’t pronounce the name “Doris.”

The kid said “Dodo.”

That was years ago. But some of the people at the restaurant picked it up, and they still call Sievers that. So she has little doubt about what’s in store for her.

“They’re going to call me Dr. Dodo,” she said.

Then she smiled. Big.

You could tell. She kind of liked the sound of that.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos