Recently, I had the privilege of sitting down with a man who is not only one of the leading specialist veterinary surgeons in the world but also one of the kindest and warmest people I have ever met, Dr Charles Kuntz. The head vet and founder of specialist veterinary clinic, Southpaws in Moorabbin, Melbourne took the time to share a decaf latte with me and talk to us about his journey into veterinary medicine and his ever-expanding specialisations. We delve into his passions, successes and the motivations behind pioneering techniques that have been instrumental in the advancement of veterinary medicine throughout the world. I hope you enjoy learning about Charles and his work as much as I enjoyed listening to him.
Morgan Coleman: Charles, you’ve had a very impressive career so far – can you tell us a little bit about how you got started?
Charles Kuntz: When I started university in the United States, I knew I either wanted to be a vet or a doctor. I’d always been an animal lover and within the first week of studying my family dog got sick with a cancerous tumour. I asked to volunteer at the hospital in which he was being treated and I just never looked back.
After completing my degree at The University of Florida, I did an internship at Animal Medical Centre in New York. At the time, it had over 95 vets working on staff and received over 70,000 case admissions per year. At one stage I actually saw 57 clients in one day, so it was definitely a baptism of fire.
Following that I took up a surgical residency in rural Virginia, it was a complete change of pace going from the clinic in New York with over one hundred animals in the clinic at any one time to not even ten. However, the change of pace allowed me to focus on my studies and research.
MC: So is this where you started venturing into contributing to veterinary science research?
CK: Well, during this time I started to explore my interest in heart surgery. At the time, the industry was looking to bring back a method of open-heart surgery called controlled cross-circulation that had been pioneered by a doctor by the name of Dr C. Walton Lillahei. It was the first time surgeons were able to consistently and successfully complete open-heart surgery with high, long-term survival rates.
I called Dr Lillahei who was still alive at the time and ended up spending three weeks working with him in his laboratory. He actually sat on my Master’s committee and served as a huge inspiration for me throughout my career. He was just someone who, despite all the naysayers and critics, pushed on with what he wanted to do, something I have definitely tried to emulate throughout my own career.
MC: So, you were still publishing research throughout this time?
CK: Absolutely, I’ve been fortunate to have thirty to forty first-author articles and over one hundred and fifty co-author articles published.
MC: But it’s not just veterinary medicine in which your research has helped; your work has also been included in some human medical textbooks, is that right?
CK: That’s right: I’ve written a chapter for a veterinary medicine textbook on cancer surgery in dogs and also a chapter for a human cancer textbook.
MC: Ok, so how did Southpaws come about?
CK: Well, I started working in cancer surgery for dogs at the University of Colorado before starting a surgical and oncology practice in Virginia, without realising I actually became the only cancer surgeon east of the Mississippi. It wasn’t long before I was booked with seven surgeries a day, five days a week, three weeks in advance.
After several years of running the clinic in Virginia, my wife and I decided that for lifestyle reasons we wanted to raise our family in Australia so I came and set-up Southpaws in Moorabbin, Melbourne. It was a huge shock because I came from being booked out three weeks in advance to not getting a phone call for two weeks.
MC: But the phone call did come?
CK: Yes it did and I was so excited when I answered it but it was quite the anti-climax: the vet on the other end of the phone asked me who my wife was, and when I told him, he said, “Great, I have a horse for her to see”. So, the first phone call we ever received was actually for my wife.
Since then, we’ve grown so much and become so busy that we’re currently undertaking renovations that will see the clinic expand to eight consulting suites, a dedicated bandaging suite, a large ICU, a dedicated anaesthesia area with four bays, three surgical theatres (one of which is lead-lined and all designed to human standards), a lead-lined x-ray room as well as an internal medicine area with our own dedicated ultrasound and endoscopy suites. As part of the upgrades we will be updating all of our diagnostic equipment such as X-ray machines and CT scanners.
Side note: The renovations look amazing!
MC: So two weeks without a phone call is a long time. That must have been quite discouraging at the time. How did you know you were on the right track?
CK: Well, effectively I didn’t. It took a lot of marketing and self-promotion before other vets trusted me enough with their specialty cases. The most important thing was to back up everything we were saying with excellent client care and excellent communication. It was really hard though, it was probably three or four years before I felt like the business was really secure.
MC: You really have quite the resume, what would you say is your biggest achievement?
CK: Without a doubt, my family: my wife and three boys are by far my biggest accomplishment, everything else pails in comparison. But if I were to speak professionally only, I would say the culture and team that we have cultivated here at SouthPaws. We’ve got such a great team that are all committed to the cause. Every one of our staff members puts the animal’s best interest above all else, no one person is above any task, we all have the attitude that we will do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Side note: Having been a client of Southpaws previously when Milky was in a bad way, I can personally attest to the amazing culture at Southpaws and the incredible team they have working within this clinic.
MC: Southpaws handles a lot of very complex cases and surgeries. Can you tell us a little more about the types of surgeries and conditions you’re able to treat within your clinic?
CK: In terms of the complexity, we offer a very wide range of treatments and surgeries. Pretty much if a dog or cat can get it anywhere in the world, they can get it here. There are a few exceptions of which I’m currently training up in such as image-guided minimal invasive surgery. We’ve actually pioneered brain-splitting surgery in epileptic dogs. This is where we split the two sides of the brain surgically to block the neurological transmissions that cause epileptic fits. It’s quite common in humans but very new in animals.
Aside from the vast range of surgeries, we also offer more internal medicine services, which is where the treatment for the condition or disease is medical and not surgical; things like diabetes, kidney diseases, thyroid or adrenal issues and medical neurological conditions.
MC: Ok, so basically if it can be done anywhere in the world, it can be done at Southpaws?
CK: Pretty much. Laughs.
MC: Let’s discuss spinal surgery more deeply. What kind of injuries or accidents would require an operation on the spine?
CK: The most common surgery that we do is for dogs that have had a compound injury to their spine. This is basically where the vertebrae of the spine have been pushed together with enough force that the discs that sit between each vertebra are compressed with enough force that one or more of the discs actually ruptures.
Due to the design of a dog’s spine, a rupture like this actually puts pressure on the spinal cord causing the dog to be paralysed. An injury like this could be something as simple as jumping off a couch or bench. Dachshunds are ten times more likely to have a spinal injury, reason being is the inbreeding has caused the discs to be more brittle.
MC: It sounds like it would be incredibly intricate, can you describe in layman’s terms what you actually do when operating on the spine?
CK: Most definitely. If the patient is showing that they still have feeling in their toes, this would suggest to us from clinical diagnosis perspective that the spinal cord is intact and therefore the best course of action is surgery. Following that, we do a CT scan which confirms our clinical diagnosis and shows the location of the rupture, or it shows us that it is something completely different (like a tumour).
If surgery is required, we action this immediately because the longer the spinal cord is compressed, the worse the long-term effects can be. There are two types of injury that will have occurred to the spinal cord: first is the impact which is the force sustained by the spinal cord when the disc ruptures (that is irreversible). What we are treating in the surgery is the continued compression of the spinal cord and relieving it so that neurotransmissions can once again flow undisrupted.
Put really simply, what we do is cut open a window into the affected area of the spine and scoop out, very carefully, all the liquid compressing the spinal cord.
Still doesn’t make sense? See diagram below.
Side Note: The reason for the decaf latte was that Charles refuses to consume caffeine due to the delicacy of the spinal cord, the slightest knock could cause the patient to become permanently paralysed.
You can find a video of Charles talking you through a typical spinal surgery on the Southpaws Youtube channel.
WARNING: There are graphic surgery images.
MC: So how many of these cases would you see in a typical week?
CK: At least six to ten cases per week.
MC: I think that most pet owners would be similar to myself in that they would think that spinal surgery is a last resort and one that could adversely affect the longevity of their pet’s life. Is that the case? What are the results you’ve been able to accomplish?
CK: I’d say about 99% will go back to a normal quality of life, most will be walking within a day or two. In rare instances, the dog will remain a little wobbly in the back end due to the impact trauma from the ruptured disc but even still there will be no impact on the longevity of the animal’s life. In saying that, there is an eight percent chance of reoccurrence in animals that have had the surgery, simply because they’re predisposed to this kind of injury.
MC: Charles thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, it’s been an absolute pleasure to learn about you and your clinic.
CK: You’re most welcome Morgan.
The complexity of the cases Southpaws are able to treat is testament to the skill and expertise of the team but undoubtedly due to the diligence and persistence of Charles who has spent a lifetime at the forefront of veterinary medicine, pushing the boundaries as to what is possible so that should the worst happen, our pets have a fighting chance at continuing on with a long and healthy life. They work on purely a referral basis for specialist and hard-to-treat cases but don’t worry, for everything else there’s Vets on Call.
Until next time,
CEO & Founder of Vets on Call