Thoroughly Modern Millie

A longtime veterinary practice moves up in the world

by Will Lindner

petit_brook0416 Veterinarian Millie Armstrong bought Petit Brook Veterinary Clinic in Colchester from longtime vet Clinton Reichard in 2000. Last month, she moved into a new space almost four times larger and completely up to date.

On Friday, March 11, 2016, at a little before 2 p.m., a male cat “sprayed” inside the until-then pristine surgical room at Petit Brook Veterinary Clinic’s gleaming new 6,000-square-foot home on U.S. 7 in Colchester — and it was a good thing.

“We’re broken in!” exclaimed Millie Armstrong, the veterinarian who owns the practice and is known to her clients as Dr. Millie. (The other vets at Petit Brook are similarly named. There’s Dr. Mike, Dr. Becky, and as of last summer Dr. Adrienne.)

After practicing since 2000 in a 1,300-square-foot building next door — a building that Petit Brook’s original owner, veterinarian Clinton Reichard, says was barely adequate for his solo practice — Armstrong made the leap in 2015, purchasing the adjoining pastureland from the Reichards, hiring an architect (Bob Duncan) and contractor (Jeanne Morrissey), and launching the ambitious construction project.

The new building has a cupola on top like an old-time sugarhouse, but inside it’s thoroughly modern, with several oxygen-equipped cages, digital X-ray equipment, and a separate cat ward that can also provide isolation for animals with communicable diseases. A spacious reception room enables clients to keep their dogs and cats safely separated.

The roof is wired for solar panels for future expansion, and the parking lot can accommodate 25 vehicles. (In the old building, the staff parked on the lawn to leave spaces open for clients.) “We can also accommodate electric charging stations for vehicles once the technology becomes available,” says Armstrong.

The new clinic opened to the public on February 22, and 18 days later a certain feline christened it as only a tomcat can. Perfect!

It seems somehow plausible that Armstrong arranged for the cat’s contribution, because nearly every step of her career has been meticulously planned, virtually since the day some 43 years ago when, at a family gathering, a great-aunt asked the then sixth-grader what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I blurted out, ‘I want to be a veterinarian,’” Armstrong recalls. This surprised even her. “I thought, ‘Where did that come from?’”

On reflection, she decided that she knew. When Armstrong was very young her family moved from a dairy farm in Hinesburg to Pennsylvania, where her father, Jim Armstrong, took a job with the New Holland farm equipment company. This was near Lancaster, in Amish country.

“There were auctions every Saturday for the Amish to sell and buy horses and farm equipment,” she says. “We lived on Main Street so I could watch them come and go from the auction. I fell in love with the horses and would sit on the porch all day just watching them drive down the road.”

The family moved again, to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where Jim went into accounting and soon opened his own business. Growing up, Millie helped him with bookkeeping and other tasks, and this, she says, is where a parallel ambition developed: the urge to go into business for herself. And that business, she knew, would be an animal clinic.

The certainty of her path, however, did not mean it was easy. She worked during high school for a local veterinarian, cleaning cages, walking dogs, helping restrain animals for treatment. She molded her high school curriculum to strengthen her science background for college, and at Indiana University of Pennsylvania she pursued a double major, graduating in 1984 with bachelors of science in both biology and chemistry.

But the next step — getting into a veterinary medicine program — was elusive. It was a highly competitive field, and an additional barrier was presented by a system, in place at the time, that guaranteed placement in prestigious veterinary programs for two Vermont applicants yearly but reduced the opportunities for other hopefuls.

To tide her over, Armstrong took a job in pharmaceutical research and development with Ayerst Laboratories in Rouses Point, New York. Her parents had, years before, purchased a camp in Grand Isle; during summers, while in college, she had stayed there and worked at an animal hospital in Burlington. Now, staying there again, she took courses at UVM that were prerequisites for some veterinary programs, and branched into laboratory animal research in her day job in Rouses Point.

Just when Armstrong was losing patience, the admissions system changed, and suddenly there were options. Armstrong chose the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and graduated as a doctor of veterinary medicine in 1992.

Even then, it was hard getting started.

“There are parts of the country where the field is saturated,” she explains. “Students frequently leave veterinary school with very high debt loads, but we want veterinary care to be affordable for people, so when graduates get a job it means a low salary, hard work, and slow pay-down of their loans.

“But we do it anyway. This profession is a lifestyle choice, not an economic choice.”

Armstrong’s first position was with a small-animal hospital in Knoxville. It presented, she says, “a steep learning curve,” responding to after-hours emergencies such as animals’ being hit by cars, bitten by snakes, ingesting antifreeze. Meanwhile, she kept her eyes on Vermont, and in 1993 she found an opening at the Animal Hospital of Hinesburg. She was there for seven years. It was a lively practice with a second clinic in Bristol and a commitment to making (often adventuresome) house calls.

But she was still Jim Armstrong’s daughter, meaning that she wanted to be in business for herself. Her break came in 1999, when Reichard, Petit Brook’s founder, decided to retire. Situated near the Colchester-Milton town line, it was an ideal location — close to Grand Isle where her mother, Linda, now lived permanently. Reichard and Armstrong negotiated the sale of the practice, and Armstrong took over in 2000.

“I knew she was a very competent veterinarian, with the ability, I thought, to keep the clientele I had, plus bring her own people there, which she has done,” says Reichard.

There was nothing fancy about her new digs. Reichard had established the clinic in 1973, in the back of the home he purchased with his wife, Carol, using their hallway for a waiting room and their kitchen for the examining room. This being clearly untenable, they developed a separate clinic area, and this was the space Armstrong leased when she purchased the practice.

“Dr. Reichard went out of his way to help me make this work,” she says gratefully. She began as a single practitioner, but he was there to give her support and advice. “It’s was nice to have him to bounce cases off of,” she adds, “and he helped me through a few surgeries and even palpated a few ferrets!”

Yet her ambition was to grow the practice, which she has done ever since, expanding her staff and developing a clientele centered largely in Milton, Colchester, and the Champlain Islands. The culmination was the move in February into the new and spacious quarters next door.

Veterinary medicine isn’t the only thing in Armstrong’s life. She is famously addicted to hockey (her email address begins with hockyvet). Her father, an avid player himself, created a backyard rink for the family every winter, and for years after returning to Vermont she played on adult women’s teams in Middlebury and Burlington, competing in tournaments around New England. Her professional commitments eventually forced her to hang up her skates.

“But I’ve got season tickets to UVM hockey games and I go with my mom,” she notes. Her recreation these days is golfing, bike riding, and summer boating around Grand Isle with her mother and sister.

Most striking, however, is Armstrong’s passion for her profession. She is the president of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association, and past president of the New England Veterinary Medical Association. She’s also active in national causes like the One Health Committee, which promotes collaboration between the medical and veterinary professions.

“Vets are on the front lines of public health,” she says. “Seventy-five percent of newly emerging diseases have originated in animals, so it’s critical that veterinarians be involved — and they are: in private practice, pharmaceutical research, food inspection, military, the World Health Organization, and at the Centers for Disease Control.”

Her global view doesn’t distract her from the intensely local and personal connections with clients and their pets that she and her staff strive to establish.

“It comes down to treating people with respect,” she says. “That’s our mantra. People often have to make very difficult decisions about their pets’ care; we try to educate people about treatment plans, and be supportive and non-judgmental.”

Lauren and Charlie Irvin believed they had the best vet in the world when they lived in Denver, Colorado, and took their Dobermans to Kevin Fitzgerald, famously featured on TV’s Animal Planet. When they moved to Colchester in1998, finding good care for their pets, whom they regarded as their children, was a major concern. It took a while, but eventually they found Petit Brook and Armstrong.

“Talk about a caring person!” says Lauren. “Not only is Millie really smart and she keeps up with everything, but I think it’s that element of genuine concern and love for animals so that they get the best out of life they possibly can.”

In January the Irvins made the heartbreaking decision to put down the last of their Dobermans, who was quite ill. Lauren says that Armstrong’s compassion helped her get through it. Referring to her celebrity vet in Denver, she says, “Kevin met his match.” •