ANIMAL LOVERS: Meet Chicago Jewish veterinarians Rob Dann and Natalie Marks

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Not one hound dog was crying at any time as a gaggle of 11-week-old beagle-mix puppies entered an exam room to meet veterinarians Dr. Rob Dann and Dr. Natalie Marks.

Even in their infancy, the canines instinctively knew dog lovers when they saw them. Dann cradled a couple with a soft-as-a-feather grasp as the grandfather he proudly is. But other pups really went to town on Marks, smothering her face with kisses the mother of three gladly accepted.

The pups were being examined at Dann’s and Mark’s Blum Animal Hospital, four blocks south of Wrigley Field on Clark Street, in preparation for being made available for adoption out of the One Tail At a Time rescue organization in Bucktown.

Dr. Rob Dann

The sweet byplay was one of the highlights of the day in the veterinary careers of Dann and Marks. They are a generation apart in their training at the University of Illinois, but united in their love of animals, creativity in curing their ills and practicing a compassionate bedside manner for the animals’ usually-anxious human parents.

Dann and Marks are co-owners of Blum, perhaps the longest-running Jewish-owned and managed veterinarian hospital in the Chicago area.

Dr. Sanford Blum, a Jewish Massachusetts native, founded the practice in 1952 in a storefront that once hosted the city’s longest bar.  Dr. Shelly Rubin eventually partnered with Blum for a decades-long run. Fresh out of Illinois in 1979, Dann joined the hospital and became Rubin’s partner five years later.

After cutting her veterinary teeth at a small practice near Atlanta after her 2002 graduation from vet school, Marks linked up with Blum in 2006 before assuming co-ownership from a scaling-back Dann in 2014. She is also medical director of Blum. Marks supervises eight other veterinarians and a support staff of technicians. Two other vets besides Dann are Jewish.

Now they are both in the news for the Blum community and beyond.

Dann is finally retiring after 40 years at Blum, having lasted long enough to use medications, treatments and surgical techniques not available in 1979 to save his four-legged canine and feline patients. Meanwhile, Marks was the lead interview in a recent Chicago Tribune feature that detailed the stresses of veterinarians in balancing careers and personal lives – stresses that have even led to some suicides of practitioners.

Dr. Natalie Marks

Both Dann and Marks knew no matter what tools they had on hand in whatever year, there’d be triumphs and tragedies on a daily basis as a vet. In attempting to achieve the former, a basic Jewish precept would be practiced.

“My kids go to religious school at Anshe Emet, and we had a field trip to the zoo,” said Marks. “One of the rabbis accompanied us. We stood in front of the lions’ cage. He talked about how animals are such a blessing in our lives, and the story of Noah’s Ark.

“He asked does anyone know who takes care of animals?  This was Sunday morning and I hadn’t had my Starbucks yet. I was kind of like, ‘Oh, no, here we go.’ Of course, my son (Evan), who is very precocious, raises his hand and says, ’My mommy is a veterinarian!’

“Then the rabbi turned to me, with tears in his eyes, and says, ‘Your mommy does a mitzvah every day.’ My kids were beaming with joy. I get chills just saying that now. I didn’t think of that. But now I do. We are doing a mitzvah taking care of G-d’s creatures.”

Not quite grizzled despite seeing almost everything on the job over nearly two generations, Dann seconded his junior colleague.

“I’d like to think that for the last 40 years I’ve done a lot of good – and good deeds — in the capacity of my job,” he said. “I think our faith teaches kindness, whether it be toward humans or pets.”

Dann’s practice spanned the years the surrounding community became re-gentrified, demanding quality pet care, thanks to the nearby Cubs. His skills have been recognized city-wide. Both Chicago magazine and Chicagoland Tails magazine, the area’s most prominent pet publication, named Dann one of Chicago’s top veterinarians.

Meanwhile, Marks was named veterinarian of the year by Petplan in 2012. She was awarded America’s Favorite Veterinarian honors by the American Veterinarian Foundation in 2015.

Dr. Marks comforts a patient.

Achieving such status was establishing an equilibrium, the challenges of which Marks detailed for the Tribune article. More than most medical doctors, veterinarians often deal with death and grieving family members. They have to regularly euthanize their very ill or old patients. The suicide issue was exacerbated by veterinarians’ access to lethal drugs in their offices.

“The key to the article was it is really hard to achieve that equilibrium,” Marks said. “We’re very giving people. We’re compassionate, we’re empathetic. We’re usually people-pleasers. We pull for the underdog – literally.

“It’s very hard when there is a tragedy. A client and a patient you’re working with for decades losing a pet suddenly or after a chronic disease – it never gets easier.  It’s hard to distance yourself. You become part of your clients’ extended families. When they are grieving or having a hard time with a bad diagnosis, it’s very hard to not have that affect you.”

Said Dann: “I think clients are coming for comfort, they’re coming for answers. We understand what they’re going through. We want to make their situation as easy as possible.”

Veterinarians with good diagnostic skills are worth their weight in gold to pet owners. For example, a basset hound who was mysteriously losing weight and wasting away was diagnosed by a savvy veterinarian with Addison’s disease, which also afflicts humans, including the late John F. Kennedy. A monthly dose of a steroid-based substance quickly restored the dog to good health.

“One of the biggest joys of practicing is when you can solve a case or get a diagnosis, and allow that furry family member to have great quality and longevity of life,” Marks said. “The human-animal bond is the driving force behind all of this.  When you’re able to preserve that, it’s the most natural high there is.

“I think you need those highs to survive some of the real lows. That’s how we pseudo-balance out.”

Dann is happy he has more to work with to achieve those high highs while heading off the low lows, compared to 1979. In, say, a surgical crisis, he likens drawing from his wellspring of experience teaming with new technology to hero Sully Sullenberger – a former fighter pilot — smoothly landing his crippled passenger jet on the Hudson River, saving all 155 aboard in 2009.

Dr. Dann checks on a patient after surgery on his leg.

“I don’t think there’s a person who goes into this profession who doesn’t have a desire to be a healer,” he said. “The more tools you have at your fingertips, the more you can do, the more satisfying the profession is. I think there are so many things throughout the day that are ups and downs.

“If I go to an event and somebody asks me what I do, and I say I am a vet, immediately you hear the ‘oooh’ and the ‘ahhh,’ and they’re an animal lover. People light up because what they think about is bringing these soft, warm puppies into the exam room. How joyful and wonderful can that be?

“Or a pet brought into the hospital bleeding to death because a tumor ruptured. You can take that pet into surgery and save its life. Or take a pet with uncontrolled diabetes that is almost in a coma and restore them to health. Those are things people think about that glorify the profession.”

From the outside looking in, though, the veterinary spectator does not factor in the things that can go wrong.

“What people don’t think about is the other side of the coin,” Dann said. “If it’s a Friday afternoon and we’re booked solid from 1:30 to 4:30, and our first appointment is 20 minutes late and then we fit in an emergency.  And here we are the rest of the day, 40 minutes behind, with a lot of pressure.”

Both Dann and Marks got into their jobs as healers having turned their avocation as animal lovers into a vocation.

Dann had the classic mid-20th century, North Side/north suburban Jewish upbringing. A sports fan who boasted of sinking 10 straight free throws blindfolded, he sat in the second row of Wrigley Field’s left-field bleachers on August 19, 1969 to witness Ken Holtzman’s no-hitter against the Atlanta Braves. When Henry Aaron grounded to Glenn Beckert for the final out of the strikeout-free hitless gem, Dann joined hundreds of others of crazed fans in storming the field, forcing Holtzman to pass up the post-game TV interview for the safety of a dugout runway.

About 100 feet away from Dann sat Cubs lefty Rich Nye in the bullpen. Little did then-New Trier student Dann know that within a decade, he’d join fellow Illinois alum Nye as veterinarians-in-training at the famed Niles Animal Hospital. Still working part-time in his mid-70s, Nye branched off into a specialty practice of “exotics,” treating birds, rabbits, reptiles and other members of the Wild Kingdom.

Marks came from a different background than Dann. She grew up in Sterling, Ill., 135 miles due west of Chicago beyond Ronald Reagan’s hometown of Dixon. Combined with twin city Rock Falls across the Rock River, some 100 Jewish families had established themselves in this rural outpost. Temple Sholom in Sterling is now 106 years old.

With cornfields and pastures in a 360-degree arc around Sterling-Rock Falls, Marks originally thought of practicing equine medicine – veterinarian treatment of horses.

Nye, Dann and Marks all faced a grueling academic program at Illinois. Veterinary school is rated tougher than medical school. “As an MD, you’re trained to treat just humans,” said Marks. “But as a vet, you have to learn to treat many species of animals.” Even when specializing, the vet has to be a jack-of-all-trades – and master of all.

Making life even harder is the vet who also owns part or all of his practice. He or she will need to deal with the business aspects, hoping such an aggravation did not take away from their medical skills. Dann and Marks have survived to earn their clients’ plaudits even while dealing with personnel and payroll.

And they operate in an era when the value of a pet has dramatically increased to their human mishpocha. Spending on veterinarian care and pet food has skyrocketed while legal punishments against mistreatment of animals has been more rigorously enforced.

With families growing further apart and close, personal friendships harder to come by, pets with their often-unconditional love fill an increasingly gaping hole in the human condition. And in that increased closeness, keen observers have sensed that a kind of “aura” exists that facilities communication and affection between humans and animals, not sharing a verbal language.

Dogs in particular are now commonly used for therapy, being employed compassionately in disasters such as mass shootings. They sniff out diseases and provide alerts against oncoming seizures. They are attuned to their human parents’ physical and emotional well-beings.

“My (late) pug knew I was pregnant before I did,” said Marks. “The dog began lying on my stomach (before she took a pregnancy test).”

“My Chihuahua is heating up my lap right now,” Dann reported hours later from his living room, after experiencing the equal joy of handling the hound-dog pups in the exam room. “Dogs run hot. Their (body) temperature is 101.5 degrees (almost 3 degrees warmer than humans).”

Both Marks and Dann take care to remind prospective pet lovers to patronize rescue organizations when shopping for a companion. So many deserving living beings are just waiting for, and deserving of, a forever home.

And once that pet is taken home, it is remanded to the care of professionals that practice something as old as Judaism itself – the art of healing.

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