Celebrating 65 years of service: Sturgis Veterinary Hospital & Equine Center
Sturgis Veterinary Hospital and Equine Center has developed a reputation as one of the leading equine clinics in the region. The original clinic, established by Dr. J.A. Chamley and his wife Annie in 1952, has been owned by Dr. John Ismay since 1972.
Born into the perfect training ground for an equine vet, Dr. John spent his early years with horses and five siblings, riding, roping, fishing, hunting and breaking and training horses. He enjoyed summers helping his cowboy dad, Joe Ismay, manage the Ute Nation’s tribal cow herd across nearly 600,000 acres of rugged, vertically clinging Four Corners pastures in the San Juan and Mancos River canyonlands. That lifestyle could’ve held him there, so his innumerable happy clients can thank hay for sending him off to vet school.
“The small square hay bales caused me to consider my options for the future,” Ismay says. “In the summer, when we were haying, we would haul up to a thousand small bales a day by hand, and stack them in barns and sheds. Then in the winters, we’d get up at 3 a.m. and load those bales on the sled and feed the cattle with a team. There was no other way to get through the snow there.”
In his youth Ismay worked for a country veterinarian and says he always wanted to be a vet, so his flight from haying led straight to Colorado State University. The demanding vet med courses there must have seemed mild alongside putting up small bales in southern Colorado, as Ismay received a Bachelor of Science degree, with a chemistry minor at Fort Collins in 1969. He got a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from CSU in May, 1971.
Bonnie Ismay (often fondly addressed by John as “B”) was his college soulmate and has long been — and remains – his joy, his helpmate, his pillar of strength, and his greatest fan. Both are extremely proud of their daughter JoDee Allen, doctor of physical therapy in Sioux Falls and her three children; and of their son Travis. With Dusta and their four children Travis manages the Ismay ranches and cattle on the Belle Fourche River, as well as his welding business and a small construction company.
An Ismay survived the sinking of the Titanic, and the name seems to indicate a certain indomitable spirit that has lent itself to the Ismays’ success.
Sturgis Livestock Exchange bordered the vet clinic when John and Bonnie first moved there, and for years afterward. While that guaranteed Ismay wouldn’t lack for patients, it wasn’t easy work, with grueling 24-hour marathons through each autumn’s cold, wet, sale rushes.
Dr. John says, “Sturgis Livestock Exchange was a huge training field. We worked there every sale, all of us, including my wife and kids. We did it all — really hard, nasty, cold work. But we had a lot of fun over there, too, besides the hard work.”
“One Halloween we dressed a cow up with rubber overshoes on her feet; put a dress on her, and a wig and lipstick….” John says, as he and Bonnie laugh at the memory. “When she came in the ring the ring-man’s horse was literally trying to climb the walls, crowded up in the corner, wide- eyed and shaking! Everyone in the sale barn laughed and loved it, but finally Lynn Weishaar thought we were holding the sale up too long and kind’a growled ‘Are you ever gonna get that cow out of here?!’ Clients and other people we talk to bring that up and laugh about it yet today.”
It’s the hard times that make the memories, and he recalled, “We had a Saddlebred mare named Molly. She was so tall and rough and cantankerous to ride that I drove her to a buggy a lot. One time there was a blizzard and old Chip Blair up on Sturgis Hill phoned that he had a heifer with a uterine prolapse. I told him I’d try to make it out there. He said ‘This snow is so deep, you can’t get here!’”
“We had a Doctor’s buggy with side curtains. Travis was a baby, just born that summer, but Bonnie bundled him up and we took him along,” Ismay said. “I got all the stuff I’d need into the buggy behind old Molly and we actually got up there. Old Chip saw us coming and came out saying, ‘I can’t believe you made it.’
“Bonnie bought Molly for me. She was big and tall, and a character. She acted crazy, running people out of the corrals . . . but she got us and that buggy out to Blair’s, and we fixed the heifer and made the trip home ok.” Ismay says, “I did a lot of things like that because I really liked being a vet . . . but mostly I was kept going by the fear that we were going to go broke!”
The Ismays chose beef production as their insurance policy, buying a ranch near Vale in 1975. Ismay said, “We were always ranching on the side, and the vet work kept me so busy Bonnie had to take care of some of that. One time we owned 4,000 head of cattle and up to 300 horses. Some of the young cattle were in feedlots and we leased a lot of outside grass in Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota to accommodate the cows and horses. I didn’t have the time to manage it, so we worked together on it.
“She is also educated as a Medical Technologist, so she took care of the lab, worked as a technician and ran anesthesia for our clinic from the beginning, working with me,” Ismay says. Bonnie has only recently retired from some of those responsibilities.
As a lifelong horseman, equine health is Ismay’s first love, but in his growing-up-years horse people were not among the wealthy class, nor were they a generous lot. “I knew a general practice was the first necessity, to make a living,” he says. “I had been around a lot of horse people, and I knew they would never spend much money on vet bills at that time. Dr. Hannify owned the practice here when I came, and he was a general practitioner too.”
The general practice continues to flourish, along with the referral practice, with a reputation for cutting-edge treatment and professional staff, including two small animal vets, a board certified large animal surgical specialist along with a boarded internal
medicine specialist, and Ismay.
Board certified equine surgeon, Dr. Jason C. Mez completed a three-year equine surgery residency at Texas A&M University and is an equine surgery specialist offering equine orthopedic surgery, arthroscopy, and soft tissue surgery.
Board certified equine internal medicine specialist Dr. Jared J. Janke has a special interest in ultrasonography and endoscopy. He completed a three-year residency program at Texas A&M University, received extensive training in large animal internal medicine, and was a practicing equine intern clinician at Southwest Equine Medical Surgical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is now a large animal internal medicine specialist on staff.
Vet technology is where he has seen the most progress, Ismay says. “Now we have digital radiography. We used to have film developed and returned to us in an envelope. We’d take it over to the hospital and dip it in the fluid to develop it. Now, with direct digital radiology, the images can be manipulated on a computer to produce an infinite number of settings in seconds,” he continues. “The progress of technology affects everything we do. Now even all our bookkeeping is paperless.”
He’s seen progress in equine medicine, with arthroscopy and laparoscopy now being minimally-invasive surgeries, allowing them to correct internal problems on horses through a 5-10 mm hole.
They are working with regenerative medicine, including stem cells and platelet-rich plasma (PRP) to promote healing, and to help release growth factor, making it in the clinic themselves.
They are also working with extracorporeal shock waves. Ismay says it is mechanical but like the waves that radiate through water after a pebble is thrown in. It is produced in a liquid medium and travels at the speed of sound. It was first developed to treat bed sores in diabetics, but now very helpful with horses. It is now used for treating ligaments, and non-union fractures.
An ultrasound machine does Doppler and 3-D imaging of any tendon, ligament or soft tissue injury.
Ismay is committed to staying up-to-date on the latest technology and procedures, traveling all over the U.S., Canada and Europe.
“I study continually,” he says. “I spent some time in Switzerland. A long time ago I recognized a need for a referral service, so I began to just pick a subject, and study it.”
Internal fixation was the study he undertook in Switzerland, with the Association for the Study of Internal Fixation (ASIF) – a group including medical doctors for humans as well as equine vets. In Canada and the US he studied Equine Medicine and Surgery, under the auspices of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) and their instructors; and continues to study with the AAEP each year.
“I developed the referral program over the years and in 2008 specialists were added to the practice,” Ismay says, “and we had the first board certified equine surgeon. By 2009 we had a board certified internal medicine practitioner.”
Ismay, working alongside his son Travis, invented a surgical instrument and procedure to remove bladder stones (uroliths) from horses. They’ve patented this procedure and instrument and it will soon be published in EVE Magazine, a journal of the British Equine Veterinary Association published in association with AAEP.
Demands on Ismay’s time beyond his practice have included appointed and service positions such as the Educational Programs Committee of AAEP, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Veterinary Management Group 11, and advisory consul to a large veterinary medical company. He also continues to create more jobs for himself.
“Eight or nine years ago, some associates and I put together a Veterinarian Management Group of twenty vets,” he says. “We meet in person two times a year, and by email. As an outgrowth of that venture, six vets from all over the United States thought to combine, for the first time ever. That created the Mixed Animal Veterinary Associates North America, which has grown to include twenty-two practices. It is advantageous for ordering supplies of all kinds, for our associate vets, our patients, our clients, etcetera.”
Ismay was named South Dakota Agri-Businessman of the Year in 2010 and was chosen South Dakota Veterinary of the Year in 2014.
In 2017, following an expansion and remodel, Sturgis Veterinary Hospital and Equine Center celebrated a grand opening to show off their new equipment and improved facility.
Their website says, “Our vision is to provide our clients and referring doctors with a premier regional specialized wellness and learning center dedicated to the health and wellbeing of our patients.”
The center provides emergency equine care round-the-clock, and the staff has quick access to tests and results thanks to an on-site hematology and chemistry lab, which makes for faster and more accurate diagnoses.
Treatment is available for every equine malady from neonatal care to geriatric needs, and as a referral hospital they see a lot of atypical and unusual cases. That has provided them with significant experience in treating even unusual and more complicated ailments.
They offer a surgery suite, induction room, padded recovery rooms, intensive care units, and the most modern surgery table and anesthetic equipment, with multi-parameter monitors and the capability to handle eye surgery, joint surgery and everything in between.
It may have been quite a change from sweating small square bales into a shed, but thousands of clients and their four-legged patients are grateful Dr. John Ismay chose the path that brought him here.