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Animal planet: Newton native returns to share her veterinary skills

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Tricia Fowler Suttles checks out Ellie Mae, a 13-year-old Shih Tzu mix at Sigman Veterinary Clinic in Covington. Suttles said she always wanted to be a veterinarian, even when she was growing up on her family's farm in Oxford. She returned home after graduating from the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine working in her first post-college job.

Staff Photo: Erin Evans. Tricia Fowler Suttles checks out Ellie Mae, a 13-year-old Shih Tzu mix at Sigman Veterinary Clinic in Covington. Suttles said she always wanted to be a veterinarian, even when she was growing up on her family's farm in Oxford. She returned home after graduating from the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine working in her first post-college job.

Tricia Fowler Suttles recalls that while growing up on her family's farm in Oxford, she always wanted to be a veterinarian.

"When I was little, I thought that I wanted to be a vet," Suttles said. "But when I was in high school, I spent a summer working at a veterinarian's office and changed my mind. I went to college thinking I'd be a medical doctor, but in my junior year I changed my mind again. I finally figured it out that being a vet was what I really wanted to do."

A 2003 graduate of Newton High School, Suttles in 2007 received a degree in biology at the University of Georgia -- where she also spent four seasons on the school's national championship equestrian team -- and then went on to study at UGA's prestigious College of Veterinary Medicine, where she graduated in May.

Suttles -- who last September married Colby Suttles, who works as a physician's assistant in Athens -- is now firmly ensconced in her first post-college job, working at Sigman Veterinary Clinic on Highway 142 in Covington.

"I started the Monday after graduation," Suttles said. "I work on equines and small animals -- I'm treating a lot of small animals, and I really like it all. My family has known Dr. (Michael) Sigman for years. He's taken care of our horses off and on for a long time and he's seen to our cats and dogs, too.

"I worked (with Sigman) during my second summer of vet school and it's a great practice. Everything is so positive here. I had hoped he'd offer me a job because we got along so well together."

Even though she'd spent several years in veterinary school and had previously worked under Sigman -- as well as off-campus stints in nearby Watkinsville and in South Carolina -- Suttles said she was feeling butterflies on her first day of work.

"I was nervous, but I was also very excited," said Suttles, 26. "Dr. Sigman has been a great mentor to me and he's helped me see so many things I haven't seen before. I feel so comfortable working there."

When she graduated from Newton (where she was the STAR Student and salutatorian of her class), Fowler was offered a full scholarship to Oxford College and Emory University, but opted to head to Athens to compete on the Bulldogs' equestrian team, which won two national championships while Suttles was aboard.

"Playing a sport in college is a big-time commitment," said Suttles, who was voted captain by her teammates for her junior and senior seasons. "Not only are you working with the horses, but we also did a lot of weight training and Pilates. It was just like having a job. If I didn't learn anything else, I learned about time management."

Suttles found that time management is an integral aspect of veterinary school.

"That first year was so hard, I was afraid I'd made a mistake," said Suttles, who now lives in Monroe. "It took all my time and energy just studying. Throughout most of the first three years, you never really leave the classroom -- you don't get to touch any animals. Then in the middle of your third year, you get the opportunity to start working under doctors and making decisions. I loved my senior year -- that year made everything else worthwhile."

The daughter of Karen and Tim Fowler of Oxford said that at UGA, vet school students usually have no academic responsibilities during the summer months for the first two years and then work straight through their junior year, when they work in three-week blocks in certain disciplines, like cardiology, neurology and orthopedics.

While she's overjoyed to be working with Sigman -- who has taken care of animals in the east metro area for more than three decades -- Suttles said she's got some definite professional goals she'd like to accomplish.

"I want to own my own clinic someday," she said. "I want to take care of small and large animals. I want to build a clinic with a boarding facility and offer grooming and training, as well as medical care. My husband and I are already saving our money. I don't know where it will be located -- I guess we'll have to see where the demand is."

When asked if she's grown accustomed to being called "doctor" by family and friends -- as well as strangers -- Suttles laughed and said, "It is kind of weird to be introduced as 'doctor.' And it's kind of funny that people think I'm too young to be a veterinarian."