Veterinary technician Pam Dickens cares for ailing dogs at her home and takes pets to medical centers to cheer patients.
By JOSH ZIMMER
Published November 30, 2003
ODESSA - The future looked bleak for the small dog deserted in a park near the Sunshine Skyway.
Then a St. Petersburg College student rescued the pup. As it turned out, she also knew Pam Dickens. The unwanted dog had no idea how important the connection would be.
Dickens is a longtime teacher in the college's veterinary technology program with a well-known love for dogs. Soon, the once helpless mixed-breed was enjoying the good life at Dickens' roomy house in Odessa. Another wet nose for the collection.
Dickens, a veterinary technician in New Port Richey, and her extremely patient husband, Bill, care for 13 dogs at their 5-acre spread off Belmac Road. Although most of the dogs live in a specially built kennel, there's enough tail-wagging going on to make walking a challenge. A well-paid dog sitter watches the animals when she and her husband are away.
"I'm a crazy kook with all these dogs," she said.
Most of the dogs have medical conditions, including cancer and missing limbs.
Mullin, a black Lab-greyhound mix, is undergoing chemotherapy. Rusty, a golden retriever with a craggy snout, has nose cancer. Chicklet, the newest dog, is a chihuahua-Pekingese mix born with a deformed front-right elbow. Pill regimens for the dogs are marked out a week in advance.
No one seems surprised by Dickens' generosity. If anything, they're awed that she is so modest and softspoken.
At 41, Dickens is a respected teacher, humanitarian and distance runner who helped organize the annual Trail Luna Chicks Ultramarathon through Starkey Wilderness Park. The event includes a half-marathon and 50-kilometer and 50-mile races.
She's also finishing up a yearlong stint as the national spokeswoman for Purina's Beneful Smart Spa program, a position that required her to travel around the country promoting Purina foods and specialty dog care such as grooming, teeth cleaning and massages.
"She's probably the best person wrapped up in a little body you'll ever find," said running partner Elaine Anthony, a fellow SPC teacher who met Dickens in the early 1980s. "She thinks about everybody but herself. She's always been that way. Once you meet her, you fall in love with her."
Dickens, who works at Animal Care Center in New Port Richey, was born in Hawaii to an Army family. One of five kids, she speaks fondly of Hawaii's spectacular surroundings. She always liked animals, though cats were a sensitive issue.
"My dad didn't like cats," she said.
The family moved to Tampa in 1972 when her father retired. She met her future husband when he came around the house one day with his best friend, who had started dating Dickens' older sister.
After graduating from high school, she entered St. Petersburg Junior College, now St. Petersburg College. She got married. She was a natural for the veterinary field and, after earning her degree in 1982, quickly found work as a veterinary technician.
Although the title does not indicate so - it's a sore point among her colleagues - veterinary technicians are animal nurses, she said.
Over the next two decades, Dickens continued to impress friends and co-workers with her dedication and upbeat personality. She began teaching a professional development course at the college, started working as a nutrition consultant for Purina at veterinary conferences and pet shows, and found time to pursue her one great hobby: long-distance running. The training came in handy when she carried the Olympic torch through part of Tampa for the 1996 Olympic Games.
Dr. Tom Krall, an instructor in charge of SPC's program for out-of-area veterinary technician students, is particularly impressed by Dickens' commitment to pet therapy.
Research shows that pets lift patients' moods and, perhaps, improve their physical health. Dickens began bringing pets to area medical centers years ago. Unlike other pet therapists who sometimes seek notoriety, she goes about her work quietly, Krall said.
"She just does it and doesn't expect anything," Krall said.
While describing the Purina job as an honor and an extra source of income, Dickens clearly does not seek the limelight. Her approach in front of the television camera is distinctly low key. During shoots at television stations around the country, she makes sure her dog Kelby, a rescued terrier-mix who can pretend to pray, draws most of the attention.
"The travel is fun, but I don't like being in front of the camera," said Dickens, who moved to Odessa from Carrollwood three years ago. "I focus on Kelby. He relaxes me."
Once the Purina job ends, Dickens has plenty to fall back on: a profession she loves and a husband who shares her passion for running. On Dec. 28, dozens of long-distance runners are expected to descend on Starkey for the fifth annual Trail Luna Chicks Ultramarathon.
And there are always people who can benefit from pet therapy. Working for Purina forced her to cut back her schedule.
"I have a busy life," Dickens said. "But it's good."