Dr. Dee Thornell bought the first heated surgery table in the state of Alaska — for animals. But as a veterinarian with an animal hospital in Fairbanks, she doesn’t always get to use that table. She’s just as likely to be flying to some remote location, performing surgery using a church pew, pool table or truck bed.
Thornell also is the first veterinarian from Alaska with a reality television show. Animal Planet’s Dr. Dee, Alaska Vet, debuted on Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. CST.
Some of the show is filmed in the wild. The rest comes from her practice — which she calls Animal House. It includes a large, modern animal hospital, a Montessori dog training school, a laundry, groomer, retail store and the latest addition, a crematorium.
She likes her job, from the dogs, cats, moose, beavers, woodchucks and other animals she cares for, to the people.
“The people are helpful, friendly and outgoing. There is not a single soul who would not stop to help you. It’s a big little city,” she said.
It’s also a cold place in winter, with an average low in January of minus 17 degrees. Throw a cup of coffee in the air and it might freeze, she says. She wants her 15 employees to be happy at work, so she makes sure there is warmth and laughter on the job.
In the first episode, viewers traveled with Thornell as she did welfare checks on a black bear and a team of sled dogs, castrated a group of piglets and untangled a reindeer’s antler growth. Trying to save a horse injured in an expedition was her biggest challenge, partly because of the weather and partly because it is a good friend’s beloved pet.
Thornell set up the Golden Heart Pet Assistance League so remote villagers can get help paying for treatment for domestic and farm animals. She also uses the charity to do as much spay and neuter work in outlying areas as possible. And she conducts a two-week class every year to introduce 10 high school juniors and seniors to the world of veterinary medicine.
As a grade-schooler in Michigan, Thornell wrote a report on Alaska and fell in love with the state. She and her husband, Ken Rodriguez, met in 2005. “His dream was to fly and I was building a house. He helped me build the house and I helped him learn to fly,” she said. Now he works for the state of Alaska as a pilot and they share a house and barn with three dogs, three cats, two Friesian horses, one donkey named Gus and several pet chickens.
“I’ve been going to her for 35 years. She’s a wonderful lady, a good vet and she cares deeply for you and your animals,” said Cindy Reason, who has two blue heelers (Australian cattle dogs), Dottie and Missy. Reason invited all her friends and relatives to a viewing party the night the first episode aired.
Reason said Thornell has been by her side during her toughest moments over the last three decades — including helping her through the loss of several dogs.
“When you have to make the hard decision to put your babies down, that’s extreme. Dr. Dee has the compassion that helps you through that. She’s just fantastic support for you during that time,” she said.
Thornell says she’s been told: “You are not Dr. Doo-little, you are Dr. Do-a-lot.”
But she says life only makes sense if “you close your eyes for the last time, and there are no ‘what ifs.’”