Childhood tragedies don't deter ISU graduating veterinarian from achieving his goal

AMES, Iowa -- Tyler Dohlman doesn't believe in looking back. He has steadfastly refused to allow the two life-changing tragedies he suffered before his teens to stand in the way of realizing his dreams.

On Saturday, May 8, when Dohlman dons his ceremonial hood and recites the Veterinarian's Oath at his Iowa State University commencement, he'll be looking forward to a new life as a small town veterinarian. But don't be fooled. Dohlman's "aw shucks" demeanor belies the toughness, grit and sheer hard work that got him there.

Two tragedies

When Dohlman was seven years old, he lost his foot in an auger accident. When he was 12, he lost his father in a grain bin accident.

Instead of causing discontent, the two tragedies made the farm boy from Riceville value the family and community that drew him close. And instead of seeking pity, Dohlman worked harder.

"I'm the type of person that if you tell me I can't do it, I will show you that I can," Dohlman said.

"After my auger accident, my dad told me, 'you have to work hard for what you want. This accident doesn't change who you are,'" Dohlman said.

Dohlman's goal was to be a veterinarian and to play sports. Neither would be easy for a kid with a prosthetic foot in a single-parent family with four siblings. Attending college meant paying your own way. So he worked hard enough for the next 10 years to start his own college fund, taking a job every summer, and raising and selling his FFA and 4-H cattle. He also earned two major scholarships--the Horatio Alger National Scholarship and the Christina Hixson Opportunity Scholarship.

Sidelines not an option

And Dohlman was not going to sit on the sidelines and let a prosthetic foot stop him from doing what he loved -- sports. In small Iowa towns, football and wrestling prevail. In high school, he wrestled, and played defensive end, guard and long snapper for the football team. He loved it.

Although he might have gotten a scholarship to play long snapper at a small private college after graduating in 2004, Dohlman chose Iowa State so he could pursue veterinary medicine. He also tried out for the Cyclone football team.

"Our high school coach said Riceville would never produce a Division 1 football player," Dohlman said. "That just made me try out."

Cyclone long snapper

He played long snapper for a year. Although he couldn't gain the 40 pounds the coaches hoped for ("I gained four!"), he completed the same training regimen as his teammates.

"The coaches asked me when I started if there was anything I couldn't do, and I said, 'Nope, treat me like everyone else,'" Dohlman said.

When Dohlman decided "to push through" undergraduate school in two years to reach veterinary medicine, it was clear that his football career would have to end. He needed to take 17-18 credits in difficult pre-veterinary medicine science prerequisites to finish in two years. During football season, that meant only sleeping four to five hours each night. And the coursework would only be harder the next year.

"Coach McCarney was awesome. He was ecstatic for me when I told him I would have to leave the team to pursue educational goals," he said.

On to vet school

After two years in animal science, Dohlman was accepted into Iowa State's College of Veterinary Medicine. He doesn't have a bachelor's degree.

"I always had in my mind that if I worked hard enough and put the time in, being a veterinarian was definitely achievable," he said. "Most people thought I was crazy to try to get into vet school in two years."

Dohlman met with Christina Hixson to discuss the possibility of using the last two years of her undergraduate scholarship towards his four years in veterinary medicine school. She agreed. Dohlman also won a special Horatio Alger scholarship for graduate students. And he worked while in school -- at the equine hospital and Prairie Meadows.

"That's how I was brought up. As a kid I was never given anything," he said. "Paying for your own tuition and expenses makes you accountable and responsible for every choice you make.

"I wouldn't be in the position I'm in if it wasn't for scholarships and those who donate to help people they believe in and don't even know. But they know you have character because you went through adversity and you have big goals for yourself," he added.

Paying it forward

"Maybe I wouldn't have decided to go forward with veterinary medicine if I had much more debt. The national average for veterinary medicine graduates is $120,000. I'm fortunate to have much less. And I definitely want to give back scholarships someday," he said.

And, after he joins the mixed animal practice in Harmony, Minn., later this month, Dohlman will continue to volunteer to speak on farm safety. At age 10, he started speaking at the annual, local Farm Safety Day, telling kids and adults about safe operation of power take-offs. When his father passed away two years later, Dohlman's mother and one of his four siblings joined him to talk about grain bin safety.

"Every summer I still do a farm safety talk," Dohlman said. "I think it's pretty important because I'm still alive and maybe I could at least change one person's way of working around equipment."

Dohlman tells his audience that he's experienced two farm accidents, and "it's a freak thing, but it does happen, and it happened twice in my lifetime."

"I'm looking forward to building a clientele that will trust you and that's the great thing about veterinarians -- they're one of the most trusted people in the community. That will be really exciting!"