In Memoriam of Dr. Linda Sullivan
Before her February 2022 death, the professor emeritus helped found numerous charitable initiatives and taught an estimated 2,500 future veterinarians.
On spring 2006, the Pet Pals program at the American Family Children’s Hospital celebrated its 10th anniversary.
The Pet Pals initiative, one of the first of its kind in the country, allowed hospitalized kids to interact with carefully evaluated dogs.
To mark the anniversary, a newspaper reporter caught up with Linda Sullivan, the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine professor who helped launch Pet Pals. The reporter asked how children tend to react to the dogs.
“There are all sorts of reactions,” Sullivan said. “Some kids, you can see they’re feeling all warm and fuzzy. Others just can’t believe there are live dogs in the hospital. Others hang around the outer circle a little bit. Typically, by the end of the visit, or by the next visit, they’re right there with their hands on the dog.”
Sullivan noted that the family of one girl ended up bringing their own dog into the program.
“The visits meant so much to her when she was in the hospital,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, who died on Feb. 1 at the age of 67, meant so much to so many that trying to capture her spirit on the page is daunting.
In a message to the vet school “family” shortly after her death, Dean Mark Markel wrote, “It is hard to put into words the impact Linda had on the school, our students, colleagues and the profession of veterinary medicine.”
Before Pet Pals, which ran from 1996-2021, Sullivan created Dog Jog, an annual walk around campus that raised more than $500,000 for local humane societies and animal rescue groups over three decades.
Those and other volunteer efforts were in addition to her classroom work, which was legendary.
“She was probably the most beloved faculty member in the School of Veterinary Medicine,” says Christopher Olsen, an emeritus professor at the school who also helped launch Pet Pals. “I calculated that she probably taught well in excess of 2,500 veterinary medicine students who are now veterinarians out there serving animals and their owners. The impact of that is remarkable.”
“I always wanted to grow up and be her,” says Linda Teeter, a Wisconsin veterinarian who, as a second-year vet student in 1995, first brought the Pet Pals idea — along with her 125-pound Newfoundland, Magic — to Sullivan and Olsen.
Growing up, it took Sullivan time to find her life’s work. Born in Neenah, she attended UW–Eau Claire and then earned a master’s degree in business and health administration from UW–Madison.
She eventually got a job with the accounting giant Arthur Andersen in Dallas.
“She did not like the corporate world,” says Sullivan’s sister, Suzy Piorier, a retired registered nurse in Lodi. “She got two dogs in Dallas and it changed her life.”
Sullivan was a member of the first graduating class of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine in 1987.
In 1995, when Teeter — who had been taking her dog to retirement homes — first approached her vet school instructors about the idea that became Pet Pals, she said Sullivan immediately grasped its potential.
“She was the first person who said, ‘Yes. Let’s go. Let’s figure out how to do this,’ ” Teeter says.
“One of the things I loved about what she did with that program,” Olsen says, “was the way she involved the veterinary medicine students in it as a learning experience. That epitomizes Linda. She was always thinking of how something might improve a student’s learning.”
It took 18 months to establish protocols and safety measures for Pet Pals. Sullivan’s 14-year-old miniature schnauzer, Bismarck, was one of the first three dogs in the program.
Pet Pals ended its distinguished run around the start of the pandemic. In fall 2021, AFCH partnered with a Georgia nonprofit to launch its own Canine Health and Medical Pals program, or CHAMPs, which brings full-time “facility dogs” to the children’s hospital.
By then, Sullivan was a decade into a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. According to Piorier, when Sullivan was diagnosed, she told her doctor, “I’m supposed to be getting a puppy. I don’t know if I should.” The doctor said, “Do it.”
The dog — a schnauzer named Niles Newton — was Sullivan’s close companion during the rest of her illness.
When the CHAMPs program began, Sullivan established the Niles Newton Sullivan Fund for American Family Children’s Hospital Facility Dog Care. It supports the veterinary medical care of dogs in the program.
The fund is part of Sullivan’s considerable legacy. In her last decade, Sullivan continued her work and volunteering, including helping a good friend, Beth Viney, start Czar’s Promise, which includes in its mission providing financial, educational and emotional support for families in the Madison area whose companion animals have been diagnosed with cancer. It also helps fund cancer research for animals at the UW Vet School and for children at AFCH.
Viney has a Great Pyrenees named Lucciano, and during Sullivan’s last two years, Viney assumed Lucciano’s voice while exchanging daily Facebook messages with Sullivan’s Niles Newton. The messages were always lighthearted, perhaps Lucciano letting Niles know what channel the Badgers game was on. Sullivan was a passionate Wisconsin sports fan.
“We kept it up until five days before she passed away,” Viney says.
In a note to Czar’s Promise supporters upon Sullivan’s death, Viney wrote of her friend: “She gave of her brilliant, caring and extraordinary loving heart every minute of every day.”
A week after Sullivan died in February, her Pet Pals collaborator, Olsen, was supposed to teach a third-year veterinary class he and Sullivan had taught together for a decade.
Olsen considered canceling the class. Instead, he used a bit of the time to pay tribute to Sullivan — noting how she not only made students better veterinarians, but better people.
When he’d thought about canceling, he’d heard Sullivan’s voice in his head: “Are you crazy? Of course you should still do it. It’s important for the students.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” at madisonmagazine.com/dougmoe.
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