By DENNIS HIGMAN
The defining moment in Karsten Fostvedt's life came when he was a pre-med student at Stanford in the late 1960s and his sister, Siri, age 17, died of brain cancer. "I watched her suffer the last three weeks of her life with non-stop seizures; there was no chance of survival. I decided right then and there I would not go into a profession that allowed that kind of suffering to go on and on."
Instead, Fostvedt, an honor student who fully intended to follow in his parents' footsteps—his father was a doctor and his mother a pioneering woman obstetrician who graduated from medical school at age 23—decided to become a veterinarian.
Fostvedt transferred to the University of California at Davis Veterinary School, where he graduated in 1978. "It was a decision I never regretted," he recalls, "although a lot of my friends in medical school thought I was crazy to give it up."
A native of rural Wisconsin, he set up his first practice in Santa Barbara, Calif., and stayed for 12 years before moving his growing family to the Wood River Valley in 1989. Fostvedt founded the St. Francis Pet Clinic in Ketchum, where he still practices today. He remembers the difficulty of getting started here. "At first, I saw a patient every other day, but hard work and long hours paid off over the years and now I see anywhere from 20 to 40 patients daily. I love my work, but needless to say, I still work hard and put in long hours."
That's because he runs a one-man practice, an increasingly rare thing for a veterinarian, most of whom work in clinics or become specialists in such varied fields as oncology, radiology or orthopedics. "I'm sort of like the Lone Ranger, but I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "I don't want to lose the one-on-one relationships I have with pets and their owners. That's the heart and soul of my practice."
Fostvedt looks forward to not knowing what each day will bring. It's exciting work, he explains, very much like being a detective because, unlike the namesake of his clinic, St. Francis, he can't talk to animals, so he has to use everything at his disposal—experience, intuition, eyes, ears and all that modern veterinary medicine has to offer. "I'm even open to divine intervention if that's available," he adds with a smile.
The most satisfying part of his business, he says, is seeing how important dogs and cats are to their owners. Because animals provide unconditional love, they tend to bring out the very best in people, he notes. "In short, I've learned to love mankind by watching clients interact with their pets. It's been a profound and moving experience for me personally."
Much of his practice at St. Francis involves preventative care—making sure animals maintain a healthy weight and get good food, exercise and plenty of fresh air and water. Obesity in an animal causes the same sort of problems it does in humans, he says, including arthritis and diabetes.
The most difficult days are when he has to deal with end-of-life decisions that caused him to become a vet in the first place. When that stressful time comes, he does not step back and try to become detached. "Many times I'm dealing with a dog or cat that was given to a child as a puppy or a kitten. I know the animal, I know the people. I'm involved and have been for a long time. To do anything less than be there, crying right along with them, would be to lose my humanity, and that's failure as far as I'm concerned."
After leaving medical school three decades ago to become a veterinarian, Fostvedt considers himself to be a very lucky man. "I love my work. Being a vet today is like being an M.D. in the 40s. I'm in control, I don't have an HMO looking over my shoulder, and yet I have access to all the modern drugs and therapies available in medicine today."
Fostvedt is the father of six children—five boys and a girl, ages 17 to 37. He is a fit, ruddy, plain-spoken man who enjoys cross-country skiing and tennis. Will he ever retire? Probably not. His mother, 93, who now lives in Palm Springs, Calif., practiced for 58 years and delivered more than 6,000 babies. "At the very least," he says smiling, "I figure I've got a long ways to go to keep up with her."