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A Day on the Job as a Penn Vet Surgeon and ER Physician

Photos by Jim Graham 

Penn Vet New Bolton Center’s Barbara Dallap-Schaer was kid without a horse. Now she’s saving them at a local animal hospital.

Dr. Barbara Dallap-Schaer has hosted a true menagerie of patients over her career, often at odd hours in the evening. The list includes a wallaby, a zebra, a camel and, sadly, an ailing tiger that died on the operating table. “I had a bunch of circus people in the waiting room crying uncontrollably,” she says. “You don’t get to choose which animal shows up in the emergency room.”

Dallap-Schaer suspects that if her parents had bought her the horse she wanted as a kid, she wouldn’t have become a veterinarian. Had they done so, it might’ve satisfied her equine enthusiasm—and who knows what alternate career she would’ve pursued? Alas, her parents ignored her plea. So she sought out others who had horses to care for.

Now 53, Dallap-Schaer’s eyes light up when she thinks back to those days. Right now, she’s seated in her office at New Bolton Center, where she’s the medical director of the University of Pennsylvania’s internationally renowned large-animal hospital. Its over 100 stalls are occupied more often than not. Its field service makes about 19,000 patient calls annually to minister to sick animals. New Bolton also serves as a campus for Penn veterinary students, employing more than 200 staff and clinicians.

Dallap-Schaer was appointed to head the facility in 2015. She’s worked at Penn Vet New Bolton Center most of her career as a surgeon and an emergency room physician. She holds rare board certifications from both the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. As New Bolton is also a teaching hospital, Dallap-Schaer serves as professor of emergency medicine and critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Those who know Dallap-Schaer well mention her intelligence and her ability to get important things done. “She’s an extraordinary clinician, which also extends to the way she handles concerns,” says Dr. Kathy Anderson, whose Equine Veterinary Care at Fair Hill Training Center in nearby Maryland oversees the needs of the over 750 horses quartered there. “Whenever I see a problem I think needs fixing, it’s usually resolved in a manner I might not have been aware existed. [New Bolton is] always on the front end of technology developments.”

penn vet

Just another day on the job for Penn Vet New Bolton Center’s Dr. Barbara Dallap-Schaer.

Chester County vet, Cindy Buchanan has known Dallap-Schaer since she was a student at Penn and the latter an intern. “This is a huge horse community with very expensive horses, so it’s great to have all the diagnostic services and emergency care that New Bolton offers,” says Buchanan.

Dallap-Schaer received her bachelor’s degree in animal biosciences and microbiology from Penn State University in 1990 and her VMD from Penn in 1994. Then she interned for a year at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, K.Y., before returning to New Bolton in 1995 for her residency. She later did an alternate-track residency in emergency/critical care at New Bolton between 2001 and 2003. She was named chief of emergency services there that year. Dallap-Schaer was in the ER when 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro was transported to New Bolton from Baltimore after he shattered his leg in that year’s Preakness.

helping horses

“You don’t get to choose which animal shows up in the emergency room.”

Dallap-Schaer was still a student when she met her Swiss husband. The pair have two teenage daughters and live on a farm in Landenburg, where they primarily raise sheep. Tom Schaer is also employed as a physician at New Bolton, involved mainly in research. “We bonded in surgery,” she recalls of their early chemistry. “He works in translational medicine and is in contact with clinicians from all over the country.”

Somehow, the two of them manage to balance an active farm life with their professional careers. “Barbara always has a lot on her plate,” says Corinne Sweeney, her predecessor at Penn Vet New Bolton Center. “But she always manages to handle each item with success and grace.”

A typical 12-hour day begins at the farm around 5 a.m. Dallap-Schaer works with her husband for about an hour tending to the herd of sheep, which can range from 60 to 80 head—plus chickens, bees and whatever else her husband has decided the farm needs. “Then I exercise, and we usually drive to work together,” she says. “We try not to talk about work at home—that’s our firewall.”

When COVID-19 struck in March 2020, Barabara Dallap-Schaer had a choice to make: She could maintain her schedule at the hospital or try to do work-arounds from home. She chose the former. “I’m really a horrible parent,” she says, without a touch of drama or apology. “I didn’t work a single day from home. I’ve been in [the hospital] since March 16, almost two years ago.”

Amid the pandemic, the tightrope Dallap-Schaer has had to walk has been especially precarious, as she’s successfully managed to keep her staff safe while continuing to serve patients and their anxious owners. “In the past year and a half, I’ve been off the [hospital] floor—which is a little sad,” she admits. “I’ve always thought of myself as more of a clinician, and most people who are dual-boarded don’t go into administration. But both jobs involve triaging and delegating.”

By mid-March 2020, the pandemic had forced Penn students to leave the clinic for remote learning. “That caused a problem, because the state requires veterinary students to do clinical participation to get a degree,” says Dallap-Schaer, who quickly adopted safety protocols to protect the staff. “We were early mask adopters, by the third week of March, and we divided everyone into pods.”

Normally people who do the same work associate with each other on the job, catching the same communicable diseases. By separating them into teams, “If one person got sick, we didn’t lose that function.”


Dallap-Schaer works with radiology service chief Dr. Kathryn Wulster and chief of surgery Dr. Dean Richardson at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center.

In the early days of the pandemic, Dallap-Schaer headed to Lowe’s one evening to get tape to mark off safe distances on the floor of the facility. “We pioneered in contact tracing, using bar codes and an app so we knew where everyone had been during the day,” she says. “We had no workplace transmission of COVID with the staff.”

Naturally, some things didn’t work as planned. The idea of separating owners from their animals didn’t always work, as sometimes the huge animals would only be handled by the people they trusted. And some owners balked at wearing masks during barn calls.

But Dallap-Schaer has always had a lot on her plate, and COVID hasn’t stopped her from working on other projects. “We want to improve our clinical service, and we need to continue to work with advanced imaging,” she says. “We also need a new facility for students.”

“A typical 12-hour day begins at the farm around 5 a.m. Dallap-Schaer works with her husband for about an hour tending to the herd of sheep, which can range from 60 to 80 head—plus chickens, bees and whatever else her husband has decided the farm needs.

Perhaps with the exception of a number of Latino thoroughbred jockeys, the horse world is not a very diverse one, and Dallap-Schaer hopes to help change that. “We’re trying to create more diversity in vet school,” she says.

She believes part of the answer is creating events and programs that allow children to be around the same large animals she sought out as a teenager. “What we need to do is begin a pipeline,” she says—one where one minority student follows another into veterinary and other clinical positions.

The logic of that approach seems obvious. Dallap-Schaer is living proof that you don’t have to grow up with your own horses to make a living saving them.

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