Head of the Pack

Note:  This story was originally published in the Spring 2015 issue of Berry magazine.

Sean AdamsDustin “Sean” Adams (03C) isn’t your traditional board-certified radiologist. Yes, he studied for 12 years, moving up through the ranks of student, intern and resident to reach this specialty status. Sure, he is expert at identifying even the most subtle anatomical change wrought by injury or disease. And yes, he works at an academic teaching hospital utilizing the most advanced ultrasound, MRI, CT and PET digital scanners available in health care today. What’s different about Dr. Adams is his base of patients. Old or young, male or female, large or small, the vast majority have one thing in common – fur.

As a board-certified veterinary radiologist, Adams is trained to know the anatomical ins and outs of cats and cows, horses and hounds, rabbits and reptiles, and any number of other species, although small animals commonly kept as pets are now his area of expertise. He practices his specialty and shares his expertise with interns, residents and senior veterinary medicine students at Colorado State University’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins, one of the top such facilities in the world with sophisticated medical imaging equipment utilized in very few places for animal patients.

Adams, for example, takes his rotational turn supervising use of the only PET/CT scanner at a veterinary hospital today. (“PET” in this case stands for positron emission tomography – a form of medical imaging – and not for who or what is being scanned.) When the equipment was installed in 2010, it was just the third of its type in any human or animal hospital in the world and was decked out by the manufacturer with a custom table upon which an anesthetized animal as big as a horse, quite literally, could be hoisted for imaging.

Particularly useful in cancer diagnosis and treatment, the PET/CT scanner combines the precise anatomic images of computed tomography (CT) with the detailing of functional processes, such as blood flow to a tumor, seen via PET scan.

“It is fascinating the way we can fully stage a disease process,” Adams said. “The information we provide helps guide the oncologist and chemotherapy treatment and really makes a difference. We have one of the world’s best cancer centers for pets.”

The radiology service at the veterinary hospital also includes digital radiography (think X-rays), ultrasonography, traditional CT, nuclear medicine and MRI – all of human-use quality. Animals are normally anesthetized for imaging other than for general radiography and ultrasound, held gently in position with padded foam. Some cases require Adams to pore over complex images in a darkened room, looking for the smallest of clues that might aid in diagnosing a sick patient. Other times, the cause of the problem quickly becomes clear.

“We had a dog that ate the better part of a painter’s drop cloth,” he chuckled. “When you see it, you wonder: When did he realize he’d gone too far?”

Adams sees little of his patients personally; ultrasound being the only service in which veterinary radiologist and patient meet face-to-snout. His job is to pass information to and/or collaborate with the referring veterinarian to determine a diagnosis or to monitor treatment.

A changing world

While the vast majority of veterinarians are generalists, 22 different veterinary specialty organizations are recognized by the American Veterinary Medicine Association, and these organizations represent 41 distinct specialties – from anesthesia and derma­tology to ophthalmology, pathology and rehabilita­tion. Adams is one of about 550 specialists nation­wide certified by the American College of Veterinary Radiology, an organization formed in 1961.

Demand for specialty care is growing, he said, estimating that six to 12 advanced studies (CT, MRI or PET/CT) are performed daily at his hospital, even though the cost to pet owners for these tests can be high.

“People love their animals,” he said. “I grew up on a farm in South Georgia, and we wouldn’t have done a lot of things for our animals back then that people do today. But animals are now part of the family. Gus, my 9-year-old German wirehaired pointer, sleeps in our bed. While it is still a shock to my system when I see bills for MRIs and other services, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same if Gus needed special care. When I first moved to Colorado, I was sure I was the loneliest guy on this side of the Mississippi River. When I came home to Gus waiting for me, it meant a lot.”

Finding his way

Adams came to Berry as an animal science major with his sights set squarely on veterinary school, and he gained relevant experience both in the college’s beef cattle operation and with the West Rome Animal Clinic. He describes his path to specializing in radiology as “a kind of process” that started during his first year of veterinary training at the University of Georgia.

“The first year of vet school is about learning ‘normal,’ including normal anatomy,” he said. “I absolutely loved it. I loved anatomy. So in my second year, I helped out teaching anatomy to the first years, and I thought I would end up teaching it as my profession. Then I became friends with some surgeons, and I thought I would become a surgeon.”

But after graduating with his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and beginning additional training in a small animal internship at Colorado State – one of the top three veterinary schools in the country – his career plans changed again.

“About four months into my internship, I realized I enjoy the diagnostic part of medicine but not the long-term case management,” he said. “For someone who loves anatomy, there are really two specialty areas in which one needs to ‘dominate anatomy’ – surgery or radiology. Surgery comes with case management; in radiology I can look at the anatomy, interpret it and then move on to the next case. I am very fortunate to have found out what I like and don’t like and to have the opportunity to go into the part of veterinary medicine I really enjoy and am passionate about.”

Adams took a year off after his internship before starting a three-year radiology residency at Colorado State.

“I needed to get out of the rat race for a year,” he explained, describing the tension- and deadline-filled process of applying for and attending veterinary school and then applying for and serving a highly competitive internship. “During my year off, I worked three or four days a week in general practice and with an emergency clinic, played in the moun­tains with my dog and cook stove, and decided what to do. I also learned then that I’m not an emergency-medicine type of guy – I’m a laid-back kind of guy from South Georgia.”

A pattern of excellence

While he may pronounce himself laid back, his accomplishments prove otherwise. The self-described “farm boy” from Alamo, Ga., was valedictorian of his high school and attended Berry as an animal science major with a vocal music scholarship – among many other awards recognizing character, achievement and excellence. Besides working on and off campus, Adams was a staple on the Dean’s List and performed with the Berry Singers and the Berry Concert Choir. He also spent two summers as a team leader for Campus Outreach Ministry, planning and directing a ministry training program for 120 college students and taking personal responsibility for the leadership of 35 students in character development and personal growth.

He kept up the pace while at UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine, receiving numerous scholarships and serving as president of his class, chair of the Georgia Veterinary Educators Student Services Executive Board, co-president of the Anatomy Club, and team captain of the Hurricane Katrina Pet Adoption Effort – to name just a few involvements. As a senior, he earned the Novartis/Ethicon Surgical Excellence Award and the Pfizer Small Animal Clinical Proficiency Award. At Colorado State, he was named Outstanding Small Animal Intern.

He’d earned a year off.

What’s next?

Adams’ “process” of career discovery continues, and he is unsure what the future holds. He’ll stay at Colorado State for the remainder of this year at minimum and hopes to continue working on the clinical side of academic veterinary medicine, enjoying his role on a high-functioning, collaborative medical team. He believes he will someday return to the Southeast.

One thing he was absolutely sure about was his decision to pursue and, in 2012, to marry wife Trisha, an Oklahoma native and folk singer/songwriter who recently released an album of original music on iTunes.

“We met through our church when I was 30 and she was 25,” he said. “I saw her once and chased her for seven months before she said yes – to a first date. We were married six months later. I knew I was going to marry her; I was never as confident of anything as I was of marrying Trisha. I married up for sure; she is pretty incredible.”

The couple shares a love of music. He is into bluegrass and is learning to play the mandolin; she performs with a local band as well as heading up the music program for Grace Church Presbyterian and working for two nonprofits. They also enjoy spending time in the mountains, which makes the thought of leaving the Rockies behind difficult regardless of the pull he feels from the part of the country that’s “home.”

That said, the Southeast just might win out if career opportunities open up this way.

“I like good food and good beer,” he laughed. “Colorado may be the beer mecca of the U.S. with all its microbreweries, but the food is better in the South!”

Regardless of where he lands geograph­ically, this Berry animal science alumnus and highly-trained veterinary specialist is sure to be found where he always seems to end up – at the head of the pack.

Adams on Berry

“The classes were great. The professors were great. I worked in Rollins and in an office job. I got to know animals and a lot of down-to-earth, fantastic people. They have such a caring nature and a love for what they do. And music was a fun addition to my college life.

“I also appreciated the environment of fellowship on campus – it had a real hometown feel that I needed. It was perfect for figuring out the answers to life’s questions – to who you are. At Berry, there are lots of people committed to helping you.”