Dr. Charles Kuntz, a registered small animal specialist surgeon, and founder & director of @southpawsvet Specialty, Emergency and Referral Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, and @vetdojo offering continuing education for the veterinary industry. 📚
Dr. Charles & @southpawsvet also has a very active YouTube channel featuring, amongst other high-value educational content, small animal surgeries streamed live! Click here to watch some advanced surgeries in action!
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted in your life? (Feel free to give specific brands/models).
This may sound ridiculous, but I really like a good disposable pen. My favourite is the BIC Original fine. It is orange with a royal blue cap. It costs about 90 cents but it writes perfectly. When I write up medical records or fill out forms using a good pen it puts me in a better frame of mind. My penmanship is neat (for a change) and I feel organised and productive. I have no idea where all of the caps go in our hospital, but I have to find one with a cap because otherwise, the balance is all wrong. I have my receptionists buy them for me by the box so that I always have one available. I know that I sound completely loopy, but it is one thing that really makes me happy.
What is the funniest thing that has happened (to you or witnessed) in your job?
Strap in, the is going to be disgusting. One day, I had scheduled a surgery on a dog for a perianal mass. I did a rectal examination to confirm that the anal sacs were empty. I found that one was not and went to express it. It all happened in slow motion. A spray of grey/green fluid projectile went straight in to my mouth. I was completely revolted. My nurses, who watched the event unfold, just stood in stunned silence as I spat out the disgusting fluid into the sink and drank several litres of water. I said “That has to be the funniest thing that has ever happened!! Why aren’t you laughing?” They replied that they were afraid to because they thought I was going to be really angry. Afterwards, we all collapsed into fits of hysterical laughter which lasted for the rest of the day. For the record, despite its horrendous odour, it had absolutely no flavour.
Favourite guilty pleasure after a stressful day at work?
I am a hobbyist wood-worker. My preference would be to be hanging out in the garage, pottering around in my wood shop. Since that would be antisocial after being away at work for the day, my second favourite thing to do is to be a couch potato on my iPad - which is a bit less antisocial. There is a well-worn spot on the sofa where most evenings I can be found reading the latest news or on YouTube watching wood-working or surgery videos. Ideally, my black Labrador, Humphrey is there with me. I sometimes vaguely pipe in comments relating to the family conversation going on around me which clearly reflects the fact that I wasn’t listening.
How has a failure (or apparent failure) set you up for later success? Do you have a "favourite failure" of yours?
After my surgical residency, I failed to get a cardiology residency. I had done my Master’s degree on cardiopulmonary bypass in dogs. I thought that I would like to be a cardiologist and cardiac surgeon for animals. There was only one cardiology position available that year and I didn’t get it. As a result, I was able to join my wife at Colorado State University where fortuitously, I applied for and got a Fellowship in Surgical Oncology. That started me off in an area that, up to that point, I had relatively little knowledge or expertise. This allowed me to distinguish myself in a relatively narrow field. When I left Colorado State University and moved to Virginia, I was the only Fellowship-trained surgical oncologist on the entire east coast of the United States. I was VERY busy with referrals from up to 1000 miles away. Surgical oncology is a discipline wherein skill and knowledge can make a big difference in the outcome and survival of the patient. As an example, with cruciate disease, if you do a good surgery, patients do well and if you do a great surgery, patients do well (just a little bit better). With cancer surgery, if you do a great surgery, it can make the difference between life and death.
If you have a billboard for all other healthcare professionals out there with any message, what would it say? (It can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)
Have integrity. Own your mistakes.
What is an unusual habit or (conventionally considered to be) absurd thing that you do/love (may or may not be related to your discipline/practice)?
After every surgery, even if I think it went perfectly, I always try to come up with three things that I cold have done better. My Major Professor, Dr. Spencer Johnston, taught me this during my residency. This encourages continual improvement. Good enough should never be good enough.
In the last 5 years, what new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life (may or may not be related to your discipline/practice)?
About 20 years ago, I asked a famous veterinary surgeon who was retiring what advice he would give a young aspiring surgeon. He said “Work less and spend more time with your family. When people are on their death beds, no one ever wishes they had worked harder. They all wish they had spent more time with their family.” I have really taken that to heart lately and recognised that there is more to life than making money. I have tried to attend my kids’ sporting events, ceremonies, pageants and parties. I also always try to take Fridays off to spend with my wife, going to the movies, having lunch or going for a drive. I was relayed a story by a visiting veterinary student. He was on an externship in the US at a world-renowned veterinary referral hospital. He was scrubbed into a surgery and it came up in conversation that the surgeon’s son was, at that moment, trying out for the US olympic team. Not only was the surgeon not there to cheer for his son, he had NEVER seen his son compete.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven student? What advice should they ignore?
Work hard. Don’t whine. I was relatively lazy as a vet student and really wish that I had studied harder. I graduated 37th out of 73 students and I know that if I had studied harder I would have done better. There were subjects that I floated through, working just hard enough to get by. In hindsight, knowing those subjects better would have been helpful later in my career. Also, the discipline that I would have gained would have helped me work harder as an intern and surgical resident. As a resident, I was viewed as being unfocused by the faculty. When I left my residency and started at Colorado State University during my Oncology Fellowship, I finally hit my groove. I know that everything worked out for the best, but I feel that if I had had a better work ethic as a vet student, intern and resident, I would have made a better impression.
I am good friends with a well-known and highly respected orthopaedic surgeon. He was a resident when I was a student. He gave me one of the best back-handed compliments I ever received. Over drinks one night at a conference, he told me recently, with glee: “When you were a vet student, we thought you’d never amount to ANYTHING!!”
I often hear vet school professors tell students to go in to private practice before applying for an internship, in order to get experience. In my opinion, if you know that you want to specialise, apply for an internship straight away. Your letters of reference will be “fresher” in your teachers’ minds when they support your application. In the US, that is the standard path to specialisation and we all turned out OK. If you find yourself in general practice after your internship, it will take you a few months to get up to speed, but you will be so far ahead of the game in terms of advanced veterinary knowledge. You will have skills which will make you very competitive for jobs in the future.
What bad recommendations you hear in your area of expertise that you would want to correct the most?
Specialists sometimes give primary care vets the impression that they are being negligent if they don’t refer every case. I believe it is more important for primary care vets to have a great relationship with their specialists and to come up with a bespoke treatment plan for each patient based on the primary care vet’s experience, expertise and available equipment as well as the owner’s perspective, resources and ability to travel. The primary care vets with whom I have this relationship end up doing MORE surgery and referring MORE cases because they have a better understanding of what they are capable of and what is available through referral.
In the last 5 years, what have you become better at saying "no" to? What new realizations helped?
I have learned to say “No” to helping everyone with their projects. I get asked about 20-25 times a year to participate in other’s research projects and other activities. I have learned to be selective of the projects in which I help. I don’t have to agree to everything.
When you feel overwhelmed or lost focus temporarily, what do you do? (What questions do you ask yourself to get back on track?)
Mindfulness. When I over-think things, I have to tell myself that it is all in my head. I can’t control what happens to me but I can control how I react to it. Often the contaminated thinking is worse than the actual event. Pulling myself out of it, while challenging at times, really allows me to get perspective.
What is your best or your favourite achievement in your career so far?
My most favourite achievement so far is starting Southpaws. I entered a fairly competitive market in Melbourne in 2004 as an unknown, to the point now where we have a team of 55 with 6 surgeons, 6 rotating interns, 5 other supporting vets and the balance being nurses and administration. We have changed the face of veterinary surgery in Australia and the standard of high-access veterinary education world-wide.
Southpaws founder and director, Dr Charles Kuntz, graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. He did an internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and completed a residency and Master’s degree in surgery at Virginia Tech in 1994. He achieved specialty board certification in surgery in 1996 on his first attempt. Charles then did a one-year fellowship in cardiovascular research and surgery. He completed a fellowship in surgical oncology at Colorado State University and was later a Professor of Orthopedic Surgery there before moving to northern Virginia where he started one of the busiest surgical referral practices in the Washington DC area. He was the program chair and a member of the Board of Directors of the District of Columbia Academy of Veterinary Medicine. Charles moved to Australia in 2004 and is the director and owner of Southpaws Specialty Surgery for Animals in Melbourne. He is an internship director, surgical residency advisor and program director for the American College of Veterinary Surgeons. Charles has published many scientific articles, abstracts, patents, proceedings and book chapters on topics of surgical oncology.
At Southpaws Charles started Australia’s first deep radiation therapy unit for animals, one of only two in Australia today. He has personally performed and interpreted over 5,000 CT scans on small animals. He has operated on over 5,000 patients with cancer with local control rates of over 95%. Charles has won numerous awards and appeared on national TV and radio and in newspapers and magazines. He receives referrals from all over Australia as well as consultations by phone and email worldwide. Charles received the honour of being accepted as a Founding Fellow in Surgical Oncology by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons for his “Exemplary training, experience and practice in the multidisciplinary approach to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of cancer patients and his devotion to cancer research.” He is one of the first people worldwide to receive this honour. At Southpaws, Charles focuses primarily on soft-tissue surgery including cancer care, spinal surgery, cardiothoracic and brain surgery. Charles is passionate about innovation for the betterment of veterinary science and about providing extraordinary levels of patient care. Charles points out that in veterinary medicine owners have a choice of treatment options, and so he invests significant time in helping owners make the best decisions for their pets and themselves. Charles also loves veterinary education, often hosting free lectures and live streaming videos of surgeries and he enjoys the questions and interest from veterinary professionals all over the world. In his spare time, Charles enjoys spending time with his family, woodworking, photography and playing the guitar. Of his pets, Charles remembers the time when a friend took his black Labradors for a walk, they walked 10 m in front of him and turned around and barked at him, Charles says he admires that kind of simplicity in the world.