Everything about Dr. Gregory Wolfus makes you want to be his friend. From his infectious laugh and approachable demeanor to his ‘dude’ persona, his mere presence seems to be an invitation for conversation. When you meet him, he will call you bro, regardless of gender, and inquire about your life story. Henceforth, even though he knows your name, your mother’s maiden name, and details of your life that only you and your high school guidance counselor know, he will continue to call you bro. This is by design.
As Director of Tufts at Tech, Dr. Wolfus oversees operations of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s community veterinary clinic located at Worcester Technical High School. Here, high school students learn to be veterinary assistants, veterinary students learn to be veterinarians, and low-income residents of the community have access to affordable, compassionate veterinary care.
On any given day, dozens of cats and dogs are treated at the clinic. Students work in teams to meet clients, take histories, examine patients, make diagnosis, and create treatment plans. Unique to the low-cost mission of the clinic, vet students are also responsible for coming up with a cost estimate of their proposed treatment plan, and potentially offer a second or third option for treatment depending on budget.
Veterinarians and vet techs supervise and assist students throughout the course of the day, and students are required to present patients and diagnosis to a veterinarian for treatment approval. Like other clinical rotations at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, the students gather at the end of the day to do ‘rounds’, where noteworthy cases are discussed through a ‘quiz’ type exercise led by Dr. Wolfus.
Between the high caseload, and the constant turnover of students, the clinic can seem to an outsider like a chaotic environment. Yet, under the leadership of Dr. Wolfus, there is a unique learning system that thrives there. It’s a system that is designed to support and enable specific areas of student development. And, within the three-week rotation that students spend there, it is successful.
When veterinary students arrive at Tufts at Tech, they’re asked to leave their ‘student’ persona behind, and step into the role of doctor. The difference is slight, but consequential. Students defer to the greater knowledge of their superior. They ask their diagnoses, with a wandering intonation at the end of their statements. Teacher: “Name a symptom of diabetes mellitus.” Student: “High blood sugar?”. Doctors, on the other hand, make statements. Teacher: “Name a symptom of diabetes mellitus.” Doctor: “High blood sugar.”
Dr. Wolfus believes confidence is the first step to veterinary students truly believing in their ability to become doctors. This can be a difficult transition for students to make. However, Dr. Wolfus is successful in facilitating this shift, because, he has shifted the teacher-student dynamic.
Dr. Wolfus’s friendly appearance and attitude go a long way towards making students feel comfortable in the clinic. As one third-year student put it, “I feel like we’re on the same level.” Under his example, the clinic has become a place where everyone is equal. Everyone is a ‘bro’. This enables students to ask questions when they need to, and make confident statements when they should.
The communal atmosphere fosters the tiers of learning that take place throughout the day. As students work with patients in teams, they are manipulating and applying the knowledge and skills they’ve learned in class. Fourth-year veterinary students are helping second and third-year veterinary students, while vet assistant students help vet students and each other.
At every moment of the day, students in the clinic are either learning or teaching. This hands-on approach to education is very effective in achieving knowledge and skill-retention—competencies that in turn builds their confidence.
In addition to the clinical skills, students also achieve a surprising amount of professional growth during their time at Tufts at Tech. When Dr. Wolfus meets a student, he asks a lot of questions. He’s not just curious, he’s calculated. He’s creating a mental profile of each student so that he can include them in cases that are in their fields of interest, and connect them with others who are doing similar work. He has a relatively short period of time with these students, yet seems to be able to win their trust, and build lasting connections.
On the day our team shadowed the clinic, we spoke to several individuals for whom this rang true. One fourth-year student, preparing to graduate in a few months, had recently made the decision to cancel her residency applications and take a job at a primary care practice in California—a decision she says she was able to make because of the counsel provided by Dr. Wolfus. A second-year student in the DVM/MPH program was, within minutes of meeting Dr. Wolfus, given the contact information of a veterinarian whose work aligned with the student’s MPH interests. Finally, a recent Cummings School grad, volunteering for the day, had recently successfully negotiated favorable terms in a new contract, again, thanks to the guidance of Dr. Wolfus.
For Dr. Wolfus, the job extends beyond the three weeks that students spend in the clinic. Like many genuinely mission-driven people, the line between work and personal life can be blurry. He fields dozens of email requests each morning and evening. He spends free moments emailing recent students pictures from their rotation at Tufts at Tech. He routinely helps recent graduates find work and negotiate contracts. Wherever he is, whatever he’s doing, Tufts at Tech is never far from his mind.
For Dr. Wolfus, the clinic is a medium through which to train the future veterinarians of the world to be confident, competent, successful ‘bros’. Bros treat others as equals. Bros take the time to help each other. Bros make an effort to celebrate small victories, and make work fun. And, bros ask questions.
He wants students to leave the clinic asking big picture questions. During moments of down time he waxes on about medical philosophy. What kind of a doctor do you want to be? What are the pros and cons of tertiary care? What are the factors that motivate us to make the treatment decisions we make? At its core, the clinic is one long, ongoing conversation, with students coming and going, and Dr. Wolfus at the center, asking questions.
In the end, Dr. Wolfus’s work at Tufts at Tech is a labor of gratitude for the experiences that have made him the doctor who he is. From his student days at Cummings School, to years of practicing in the field, to the lessons he’s learned in life. He hopes the lessons that students learn at Tufts at Tech will someday be passed on to future generations of veterinarians, doctor bros who confidently, competently treat patients, and ask questions.