Medical miracle: Woman, 55, becomes ‘people’ doctor after decades as vet
"I've worked around the clock forever,'' says Holland, a veterinarian for decades. Her medical residency will not be finished until she is 59, but she plans to practice medicine, she says confidently, "for 15 to 20 years after it.''

Joanne Holland resembles the ultimate Earth Mother with shoulder-length graying hair, an experienced face, warm personality and black high-top gym shoes.

But Holland’s appearance and her age – 55 – only hint at what separates her from the UW-Madison Medical School’s 137 other new doctors graduating Friday.

There is her one-person Madison veterinary practice, Arboretum Animal Hospital, that she maintained every weeknight and Saturday while attending med school full time.

There was the tumor (“the size of a small rat,” she says) attached to her heart in June 1997. A 7 1/2-hour operation saved her life.

There was the fatigue from studying hours before sunrise and leaving her vet office on Fish Hatchery Road at 10 p.m.

There is the single parenting of her two daughters, who were ages 14 and 18 when she began medical school classes in fall 1994. Her youngest daughter has a form of autism.

There was the burst appendix during her third-year classes.

And there is her dyslexia. The learning disability compounded med school’s notorious rigors, especially the endless reading and memorizing.

“It all sounds so dramatic,” Holland says. “I didn’t do this for dramatic effect.”

Doctor, doctor

Why then?

Why, six years ago at age 49 with a successful veterinary practice, did Holland want to become a medical doctor?

“OK,” she says. She takes a deep breath and explains:

Throughout the ’80s, her second decade as a full-time vet, she slowly worked on a doctorate at UW-Madison in animal behavior and psychology. She compiled case histories of emotionally disabled people who have animals.

“I was moving into nothing but research and I love practicing so much more,” she says. “I thought, `Maybe I should see if I can do human medicine.’ It seemed perfectly logical in a weird sense.”

During her free time for two years, she studied for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). She applied only to the UW Medical School, emphasizing in an essay how her family’s members often lived long lives – and was accepted in July 1994, three weeks before classes started.

“I never thought, `Do I really want to do this?’,” Holland says. “I think I’m a risk taker. Not a silly risk taker-type. Not one of these people who likes risks for the sake of risks. It’s all intellectual in this case.”

Holland, who leaves med school owing $120,000 in student loans, will wait to begin her residency in family practice until next year. Now, she needs to help care for her ill mother, to slowly close her veterinary practice and to help her daughter open a jewelry-art business.

The three-year medical residency is renowned for its grueling, long hours. It doesn’t faze her.

“I’ve worked around the clock forever,” Holland says, noting emergency vet calls she has taken for three decades.

Her residency will not be finished until she is 59, but she plans to practice medicine, she says confidently, “for 15 to 20 years after it.”

Clearing obstacles

Holland’s daughter, Anna Sheehan, 20, says people don’t believe her when she describes her mother’s life.

“She’s an absolute sweetheart,” Sheehan says. “I feel astoundingly lucky to have her. I feel like my spirit picked her.”

Dr. Elizabeth Trowbridge, an internal medicine doctor at Physicians Plus in Madison, whose pets are treated by Holland, calls her “very tenacious.”

“I think you can only do this if there’s something inside Joanne that had to do this,” Trowbridge says.

Ron Holt, UW School of Medicine’s director for educational programs, says students are discouraged from working while in school because of the intense level of study.

Noting Holland’s work hours, her major illness and her dyslexia, Holt says, “Any one of those has kept individuals out in the past.”

Holt, a medical school staff member since 1968, says each graduating class has many students with remarkable accomplishments.

“But hers rank way up there,” Holt says. “And she’s done a lot of it without making a big point about it.”

Holland graduated from veterinary school at Iowa State University in 1969 without knowing she had dyslexia, a language communication disability that affects her word retrieval.

“I didn’t find out until my 30s,” she says. “At veterinary school, I thought I was nuts. I thought I had an emotional problem. I kept thrashing away. But dyslexia is a learning disability, it really isn’t a using disability.”

She continues: “I’m still dyslexic. It doesn’t go away. Sometimes I didn’t do great at med school, but I kept working at it until I did it well enough. Once something is learned you can use it fine.”

Holland says she had little opportunity to interact with fellow students.

“I don’t get joy out of what some people call recreation. Parties and hanging out — I don’t know what to do. I don’t do that very well.”

Veteran vet

A 1963 graduate of Milwaukee’s Nicolet High School, Holland knew she wanted to be a vet after visits to her relatives’ Illinois farm as a youngster.

“I have a connection to animals and they to me,” she says.

When Holland applied to Iowa State University’s undergraduate pre-vet program, the university sent her a note, strongly suggesting another major because the school didn’t have any women in its graduate veterinary program.

Undeterred, Holland and her mother challenged the school’s stance.

Six years later – despite rampant sexism from students and teachers, she says – she was one of the first four women to graduate from Iowa State’s vet school.

After a year at a Milwaukee veterinary clinic in 1970, Holland and her husband moved to Alaska for adventure.

During her nine-year stint, she worked in various remote spots: Fairbanks; an area along the Arctic Circle; and Canada’s desolate Yukon Territory. She reached patients, in some cases, by dog sled or snowshoes.

In the Yukon, “Animals were flown to me,” she says. “And I did a lot of medicine by phone.”

The cold was brutal.

“At 50 degrees below zero,” Holland says, “if you bump the fender of your car, it cracks like glass and falls to the ground.”

Before her second daughter’s birth, she moved back to Wisconsin in 1979. She worked at a Monroe clinic for two years. Then, in 1982, the year she divorced her husband, she opened her private practice in Madison.

Decades as a vet, however, made medicine slightly easier.

“When I meet patients, I’m at ease with them,” she says. “And it’s the same with case histories because I’ve seen so many.”

Healthy outlook

Dozens of patients’ photos fill frames surrounding her waiting room at Arboretum Animal Hospital.

There’s a cat who served as “best man” at a couple’s wedding. The picture shows the cat standing next to his formally-attired owners and a pastor at an outdoor wedding.

Holland pulls a photo from the wall. It’s of a cat named Ellie.

“She was really, really ill, and we brought her back to life. A very elderly cat,” Holland says, wiping dust from the frame. “The owner got two or three more good years out of her. A wonderful animal.”

Holland’s pets are three dogs, including an Irish wolfhound that was abused, two cats and three rats.

Her love for animals runs as deep as an oil well. During the interview, she had a caretaker bring Quincy, a Siberian husky dog, to her office. Quincy was rescued from abuse in Minnesota. Holland repaired the dog’s cut Achilles tendon.

“He’s functional now,” she says. “He’s basically unsocialized. He needs someone to work with him.”

The dog needs a nurturing home, she says. (For more information, call Holland’s office at 256-2274.)

That measure of caring won’t change when Holland becomes a medical doctor, Trowbridge says.

Holland says her odd life could be a sitcom. She tells a story that happened during her first few months of med school.

“I was so exhausted one day,” she says. “I came to my office, took my temperature and it was normal. So I went through my classes and treated animals until 9 p.m.

“When I got in my car to drive home, I thought, `My temperature was 101 degrees – that’s normal for a dog. I have a fever.’ I got it all mixed up: people medicine, animal medicine.”

She laughs, “I won’t make that mistake again.”

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