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Dr. David Levine Answers Ten: Surgery, Disease Prevention, Gardening, and More

By: Sacha Adorno Published: Jun 5, 2018

Meet Large Animal Surgeon Dr. David LevineAssistant professor of clinical large animal surgery Dr. David Levine is a world class surgeon, clinician, and teacher. Holding Diplomate status in Large Animal Surgery from the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and in Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation from the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, Levine is well-respected among his peers, clients, and students.      

Maybe the only person unimpressed with the surgeon is his 7-year-old daughter. “I brought her to work the other day,” said Levine, also father to an equally nonchalant 5-year-old girl. “And she told me that I'm on the phone too much, and my work is boring. She’d rather be in school.”

Although his kids may be, at least for now, blasé about their dad’s work, we wanted to learn more about what Levine does and how he got to where he is.

What motivated you to become a veterinarian?

It's a funny story looking back. A dog attacked me when I was a kid, and I was then scared of animals. My mother thought the best way to get me over this fear was to have me ride horses. I hid in the bathroom before my first lesson, but eventually I got on the horse. There’s something incredible about horses. From the smell of the barn to the look in a horse’s eye... they are amazing to be around. And with that ride, I fell in love with animals of all types.

I worked for veterinarians in high school and during college breaks. I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), an engineering school with a good pre-vet program and relationship with Tufts University. I graduated from WPI and went to Tufts for vet school.

Why surgery?

While I was at Tufts, I kept an open mind but learned I had skills with my hands. A Tufts surgeon suggested I go into surgery. I loved the engineering aspect of putting things together, and am good at it, so I gravitated toward surgery.

Dr. David Levine performs arthroscopic surgery How did you end up at Penn Vet?

I did two surgical internships and my residency at New Bolton Center and stayed on. It’s been 14 years.  

What is a typical day and what are you most passionate about in your work?

Oh, man! You should ask my residents, they tell me I'm all over the place. A typical day is any matter of either inpatient appointments with lameness exams and workups for surgical cases. I also help run the dynamic endoscopy and MRI program.  

And, of course, my passion is surgery. So, in between all of this, I do surgery of various sorts — ideally on alternating days. I love orthopedics, but I am a general large animal surgeon.

Penn Vet offers a “different level of Doctor” – what does that mean to you and how does it impact the way you care for animals?

Penn Vet is very good at tying together human and animal health through the idea of One Health. Students and faculty come here for this.

I think the world at large is naïve about what veterinarians do. They don’t understand the scope of the profession – they don’t know that veterinary medicine and science deals with food safety, biosecurity, animal and human medicine, and so much more.

I think a lot about One Health when conducting both cases and research, and we'll discuss it in rounds. We are always asking the questions: How can we improve the care that we're giving to animals and have that translate into better care for people? What can human and animal doctors learn from each other?

Dr. David Levine instructing veterinary studentsWhat are some current advances you think will revolutionize human and animal medicine?

A hundred years ago, there weren’t antimicrobials to kill bacteria and viruses; we didn’t practice good hygiene, like hand washing, to prevent disease. Today, we take these approaches for granted.

Today, when it comes to disease prevention and cancer treatment, some of the stuff we're doing on a molecular level is huge. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back and be amazed. And as we learn more about biologics like stem cells and other treatments, such as immunotherapy, made from our own bodies, the future of disease prevention is going to be as interesting as disease treatment.

What about your research — where does it focus and what excites you?

I do a lot of clinical research on prevention and early diagnosis of post-operative orthopedic implant infection, a topic that is definitely One Health. It’s a big field in human and animal medicine.

There are human surgeons that specialize in revision arthroplasty, which is taking out infected implants, working on the infection, and putting the implants back in. Horses get similar infections. And much of my interest and constant thinking is about how to not only treat these infections but how to prevent infection and diagnosis it earlier.

What’s something personal your clients don’t know about you? 

I’m an inventor! I love gardening and have a vegetable garden at home. Being the precisionist that I am, my garden must look perfect. Tell me that plants should be placed six inches apart, I get a ruler and plant them six inches apart.

And I hate weeds. So, I developed a weed blocking solution that’s a landscape fabric with holes where plants go. After some perfecting, I now have a nine-hole, patent-pending design for Punch N Plant Weed Block. I do all the sales and marketing — it’s even been on QVC.

Dr. David Levine displays his Punch N Plant Weed Block system.And professionally — what do you want clients to know?

Veterinarians get very attached to our patients and want what’s best for them. We feel their losses and work hard to meet client expectations. But there’s a misconception that we’re just dog and cat doctors that charge a fortune. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our work is emotional, physical, and all hours. Suicide and depression rates in this profession are four times the general population and double doctors of humans. Mental health has become an urgent topic in our field and there’s an increased effort to support colleagues and practitioners. I think it’s important the public know this.

And, of course, we all want to know if you have animals at home?

We currently have a lovely rescue dog, two horses — a retired racehorse that we raced ourselves and an older, retiree rescue horse — and chickens. Between the gardening and animals my wife [Dr. Meagan Smith, assistant professor of clinical equine field services at New Bolton Center], says I’m really a gentleman farmer trapped in an equine surgeon’s body.

Mandola the Wonder Horse

After a dramatic fall at Saratoga, steeplechase horse Mandola bounced back from serious injury under Levine’s care. But it was touch and go for a while. Read the story of this wonder horse’s journey from reported death on Twitter to happy retirement.