For 20 years, Kay Helms has been the driving force behind the Pontotoc Animal Welfare Society’s successful low-cost spay and neuter program. The accomplished veterinarian has worked tirelessly for decades to reduce the number of animals euthanized in Oklahoma shelters by preventing the birth of unwanted animals in the first place.
The level of success Helms has achieved in her quest to lower euthanasia rates in Oklahoma is, in and of itself, noteworthy. By her own estimates, she has saved thousands of puppies and kittens from being put to sleep. But the spay and neuter programs she works with are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to “Doc Kay” Helms’ achievements.
Helms was recently named the 2018 Veterinarian of the Year by the Oklahoma Veterinary Medicine Association in recognition of the many other accomplishments to which she may lay claim.
Helms was instrumental in launching the nationally lauded Murray State College veterinary technology program. She was appointed the program’s first director in 1978 and spent the next 20 years building and developing the program. Since retiring from that position in 1999, Helms has worked closely with animal rescue centers and shelters throughout the state, in much the same way she works with P.A.W.S.
In addition to her work with P.A.W.S., Helms currently performs spay and neuter surgeries for ARK, Animal Rescue and Kare in Broken Bow, HAVN, the Humane Animal Volunteer Network in Fort Towson, and CARE: the Coalgate Animal Rescue Effort. She travels to and from each of these facilities as needed to perform scores of surgeries per day. The pace and tenacity with which she approaches this work was nothing short of ferocious.
For Helms, it’s an unlikely labor of love that began in an era when women were not commonplace in the field of veterinary medicine.
Dolls were stupid
Helms was born at home in the small community of Cavour in rural Beadle County, South Dakota. She grew up on the family farm, where she preferred animals to dolls.
“Where I grew up, there wasn’t a TV. There was a radio part of the day when my dad listened to the news, but that was it, man — the news and maybe the Lone Ranger,” Helms said. “And there weren’t friends close by, so that left brothers and sisters, and being the youngest in the family, they didn’t much want to hang out with me.”
That left her with the animals, she said.
“As a little girl, I thought it was way more rewarding to take a baby cat and hold it in my arms and feed it a bottle than a stupid doll that didn’t do anything,” Helms said with a lighthearted chuckle. “That, and my brother had butchered my dolls.”
After graduating from high school, Helms moved to Oklahoma City to live with her oldest sister. It was in the Sooner State where she first began trying to figure out what she wanted to do now that she was grown up.
“When we graduated from high school in our family, that was the end of the family responsibility to the kids,” Helms said. “So, we left home.”
Helms said her mom was happy to see her, being the youngest child, move in with her oldest sister.
“She had just graduated from the physical therapy program at the University of Oklahoma … (and) was working at a place called Children’s Convalescence Hospital, which was also my first job here, working as a ward nurse or a nurse’s aide or whatever they called it back then. Then I went to driving the ambulance for that organization,” she said.
The sisters worked together to make sure Helms obtained a higher education. She enrolled in Oklahoma City University in January 1959 and began taking courses in English and history.
“I was driving the ambulance, and my sister said I needed to go to college,” Helms said. “I said I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college, but we both got jobs at Beverly’s Chicken in the Rough in Oklahoma City to pay my tuition for night school. We rocked along for a while (until) I decided I was going to major in something else.”
By the time Helms decided to check grammarian and historian off of her list of possible career paths, she had moved on from her job at the convalescence hospital. She took a job working as a technician for a pharmacologist in the medical school, where she said she thought her work with lab rats sparked an interest in working with animals.
“As I worked in the pharmacology department, a pharmacological veterinarian came up there, and he watched me work with the rats,” she said. “He said, ‘You oughta go to vet school!’ And that was my first idea that maybe a female human being could go to vet school. But it didn’t really resonate with me.”
Shortly thereafter, Helms got married. Her husband made a brief, unsuccessful attempt at veterinary school and, while there, Helms took a job at the school doing electron microscopy — a job she stumbled onto by sheer happenstance.
“(My husband) was up there trying to pull a politic to get accepted and I was just wandering down the hall,” she said. “I wandered past a door where there was a young lady sitting at the desk, and she said, ‘Are you here to apply for the job?’ And I said, ‘Well, I guess I am.’”
The young woman told Helms to hold on and she would have the doctor overseeing the program, Dr. John Venable, talk to her.
“I sat right there with Dr. Venable and talked to him. I had been doing histology in my research at the medical school in pharmacology, and he was looking for someone to do electron microscopy — the same kind of work, only more concise. He was pretty impressed,” Helms said. “By the time I got home, he called me and he said, ‘Can you come to work?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, but that’s kind of quick! How did you decide to hire me so quickly?’
“He said, ‘Well, I just called my dad, and he said you were a good person.’ His father (it turns out) was the CEO of the convalescence hospital, and I had no idea.”
Helms went to work for Venable, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. She worked with the doctor while her husband tried and failed to complete his first semester of veterinary school.
“That was in the fall of 1965, and I had been taking classes in Stillwater,” Helms said. “When he flunked out he went to Arizona to get his medical technician license. Since I was married to him, I went ahead and went out there too.”
Helms took a job in electron microscopy at the University of Arizona, where she worked for another year before divorcing her husband. That, she said, is when the idea of veterinary school began to resonate.
“It wasn’t an, ‘Oh, I love animals and I want to be a veterinarian,’” she said with another characteristic chuckle. “It was a, ‘Number one, you need a job to support yourself. Number two, do you want to be a human doctor or not? Number three, can you get into medical school — are you more likely to get into medical school or veterinary school? And number four, do you want to be a PhD or…’ because I wasn’t really very interested in being a veterinarian.”
I "only" have a DVM degree
Herlms’ old friend and mentor, Dr. Venable, told her he thought she could be accepted into veterinary school, so she returned to Oklahoma State University and finished her prerequisites, then applied and was accepted into OSU’s veterinary medicine program.
Helms does not hold an undergraduate degree. She took classes at OKCU, Central State, the University of Arizona and OSU, meeting all the prerequisites for admission to OSU’s veterinary school and eventually graduated with a degree in veterinary medicine, having never completed an undergraduate degree program.
“I ‘only’ have a DVM degree,” she said, matter-of-factly.
“When I got into vet school I continued to work for Dr. Venable, but I also worked as a waitress and I got a job painting with a construction company. I had a dog and raised one liter of puppies a year — all of that to help pay for my vet school,” she said.
At some point during her time in veterinary school, Helms said she finally qualified for a grant, which surprisingly irritated her. The no-nonsense veterinarian has an explanation for her consternation about the grant, and it makes perfect sense coming from someone who has spent her life pulling herself up by their own bootstraps and soldiering on.
“One summer, I went off with some old boy, and (we) spent the summer cleaning bricks in construction and demolition projects. We got a penny a brick to clean bricks in the summer of 1970,” Helms said. “And that year, when I applied for my loan — that was all cash, we were paid cash and I didn’t put that down — we didn’t put down very much income, and they gave me a grant that year! That made me so mad! They reward non-productivity. If I didn’t make any money, I qualified for a grant, but if I worked my butt off and made a little bit of money then I got a loan. It seems like it ought to be the other way around.”
Of course, she didn’t let her disapproval of the federal government’s methods prevent her from accepting the grant.
“I took it,” she said, and here came another chuckle.
Her final, formative year in school, Helms spent eight weeks in a preceptorship that she said was the final piece of the puzzle for her. She fell in love with “the practice.”
“As a senior in veterinary school … you had to spend eight weeks in a practice. The practice I went to was a mixed animal practice in Purcell,” she said. “I lived in a barn. The large animal part of the practice was a barn, and they had an office in there. In that office, they made a little thing that folded up during the day and at night, you folded it down and slept on it. It lasted eight weeks, and I loved it.”
Helms graduated from veterinary school in 1972 and promptly took a trip to Lake Texoma to celebrate with her sister’s family. On her way back to Stillwater, she stopped in Coalgate to say hello to a friend. That stop resulted in a job offer that changed her life.
“I stopped in Coalgate because I knew the veterinarian there. He was friends with the guy I did my preceptorship with. I was just going to stop in and say ‘Hi,’ and I never left,” she said. “He wouldn’t let me leave until I took the job (he offered) and went to work. A couple of weeks later, I got to go back to Stillwater and get my stuff.”
She’s been in Coalgate ever since. In her time there, she has practiced as a veterinarian, worked as a meat inspector and found time to help launch and then run Murray State College’s veterinary technology program for 20 years, from 1978 to 1999.
Murray State College
“Well, I didn’t want to do that either,” she said. “I can tell you in retrospect now, many of my decisions were presented to me in (in such fashion) that I didn’t want to (make them).”
Helms had been approached in Coalgate about heading up the newly formed program at Murray State College, but she initially declined the offer.
“I had already made up my mind, and I’d gone over and talked to the people at Murray and said I wasn’t going to go there, until I went to church,” she said. “A man I had a great deal of respect for sought me out and said, ‘I think you need to reconsider.’ So I did. I went back and talked to them again.”
The first classes in Murray’s program were held in 1978 with Helms at the helm.
“I found out the role that community colleges play in higher education is way more important than I ever thought it was, and that being part of a growing career field in Oklahoma was important,” she said. “Having an influence, a positive influence on the lives of the students, was important.”
Her influence has been tremendous and long-lasting.
“This year they were selected as the vet tech club of the year by the American Association of Veterinary Technician Educators, so their club was selected as club of the year, nationally,” she said. “The two people that I taught are now co-chairs of the program. They’re technicians, and they were selected as sponsors.
“I have always said that the popularity or success of a program can be judged by the success of the people they influence.”
Reflecting on her time at MSC and the legacy she left behind, Helms seems reticent to toot her own horn. Instead, she looks back fondly, the way a parent might look at a job well done by their child. In her own words, it’s all about foundation.
“It’s very rewarding to know the school continues,” she said. “It’s rewarding to know that it was built on a firm foundation and it has something to grow on.”
Helms retired from Murray State College in 1999, but she never retired from her quest.
“Before I left Murray, I used to bring the students over here to practice their skills while I did these surgeries,” she said. “I’ve been coming here since the early ‘90s.”
At that time, P.A.W.S. was battling a bit of bad publicity surrounding rumors of misconduct by its shelter manager. Helms said she was approached by attorney John Axton and asked if there was anything she could do to help put the rumors to rest and take over performing the surgeries at P.A.W.S. Helms agreed, and she began bringing MSC students up to help her with the procedures.
“When I retired, they had other veterinarians coming to do two-a-day (surgeries), and that didn’t work out very well,” she said.
So she started doing the surgeries every week, and with few exceptions, she never stopped.
“I’d say I’ve been doing this for about 20 years,” she said.
The story behind Helms’ involvement in spay and neuter programs like the one at P.A.W.S. still brings a tear to her eyes.
A little pink ribbon
“I have a friend named Ruth Steinberger who started this whole low-cost spay and neuter movement in Oklahoma, and she asked me if I would come and do some surgeries in Durant,” Helms said. “So I did, and I got involved with that organization over there for quite a bit.
“They would do dogs and momma dogs for free, but not momma dogs with puppies unless they brought the puppies. So, when they would bring the puppies, the puppies didn’t end up with a very good fate. I was there, and rather than making the technicians do the euthanasias, I would do them for them just to give them a little bit of a rest.”
For many who deal with life and death on a daily basis, learning to handle the emotional impact of their jobs takes time. Eventually, they can become desensitized to a degree. Such was the case with Helms, until something unexpected happened.
“I got through doing my spays and neuters for that day and I was euthanizing puppies, and they’d been sitting — a dozen puppies in a big crate all day long — they were nasty, stinky,” she said, pausing to reflect. “I had my mind set to just do it and get it over with. I’d reach in and get one, inject it, reach in and get one, inject it … until I reached in and got one that had a little pink ribbon tied around its neck. And I — it really affected me, because, I can’t hardly tell the story without crying.
“We make a big deal in our society about therapy dogs. You know, somebody wants a therapy dog and they want to bring it to the hospital, and they walk around and everybody gets to feel good and it’s a wonderful thing. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful thing and it is beneficial, but if that 10 minutes is beneficial, then how detrimental is it to the little kids out there who put the pink ribbons on the puppies?”
She paused for a brief moment to let the point sink in.
“I’ve saved hundreds of thousands of those little puppies by not allowing them to be born or even being fertilized,” she said. “And thousands more by sterilizing them so that they can be transported to other parts of the country, where they can be adopted.
“As long as I can, I will.”
For Helms, that’s not just a passing commitment. She remains as active and dedicated to that goal today as she was the day she made the decision to begin.
“The pink ribbon story is when I made my commitment to do this as long as I could,” she said. “We go to Broken Bow and Fort Towson. These private, small, humane organizations are part of only a very loose, loose network. They are all kind of doing their thing. They do what they feel they can do to kind of help the cause. They are not affiliated with … any of the national organizations.”
She has been going to them for as long as she’s been coming to P.A.W.S.
What a woman can and can’t do
Helms is, at once, a force to be reckoned with. She has neither the time nor the inclination to dicker with anyone who thinks veterinary medicine is a man’s world. She knows everything she needs to know about gender roles in the field of veterinary medicine, having blazed a trail of her own at a time when few others could, or would.
“I guess you could probably say I was kind of a pioneer, particularly in food animal medicine in southeastern Oklahoma,” she said. “There were three women in my class of 48, which is like six percent. Now, the class is a hundred and something, but it’s over 80 percent female. That’s the shift that’s taken place in veterinary medicine.”
Helms remembers an incident from early on in her career where someone was surprised to see her working alongside a male veterinarian as an equal.
“My boss was doing a C-section on a cow, and a very well-known rancher in the area — a bachelor — he was watching and he said, ‘You mean to tell me that woman can do that?!’ And the doctor said, ‘Hell, yes! She can probably do it better than I can,’” she said with a chuckle. “Dr. Windsor was a very brave man to have hired me, because the rancher said, ‘By God, I’d rather let her die.’ That was what it was like when I first started. By the time I left that practice, that old guy, he was fine. He wouldn’t have been if I’d gotten all bent out of shape.”
That incident was not to be the last.
“Another guy came in needing help. He said he had a bull with a swollen knee, and I was the only one there,” she said. “So, I looked at the bull and I told him what I would do or what needed to be done, and he said, ‘Now, this bull is worth $50,000! You sure you can do this?!’ I said, ‘I don’t care of the bull is worth $50 or $500 or $5,000 or $50,000. I’ll tell you what I’m to do and I’m going to do the best job I can, no matter how much he’s worth. If you want me to do it, that’s fine. If you don’t want me to do it, that’s fine. We’ll put him in a pen, and Doc will do it when he gets back.’ He said, ‘No! Go ahead and do it!’”
There were even some comedically surprising moments along the trail.
“I went off to the country to pull a calf,” she said. “Well, the heifer needed a C-section, and the people were really country people — poor country people. So, when I told them I had to do a C-section, there was bunch of barefoot little kids and the mom and dad, and they said, ‘Don’t start yet! Don’t start yet! Let’s go get grandpa!’
“So they went in the house, and they set up a couple of bales of hay and this old man came out. They helped him. He walked with his cane, and he sat right there on the bale and he watched me. We got the calf out and the cow up and sucking, and the old man got up. He said, ‘Well, I’ve seen everything now. I’m ready to go. I’ve seen everything now. A calf coming out the side of a cow and a woman doing it!’”
That tale brought on a series of chuckles, chuckles and fond reflection.
“Those are kind of the fun things that stay with you,” Helms said. After a couple of years I was well-known enough that (the situation normalized).”
The last of Helms’ stories may be one of the most formative and, important to her, personally.
“My dad was a German immigrant and he spoke with a little accent. The more he imbibed his Jim Beam, the stronger his accent got,” she said. “He would always ask me why I didn’t get to be a real doctor. So, one night he came to visit, and I got called out on an after-hours call. It was late at night, and it was sleeting. We went out to the farm, and a heifer was down in the pasture. I did a C-section right there in the sleet, under the lights of a pickup.
“Later, I heard him tell that story, and he finished the story by saying, ‘By God! I didn’t think she could do it!’ And that was the closest I ever came to getting the blessings of my father.”
All these years later, Helms remains a resident of Coalgate.
She has a daughter, Katie, who is an elementary school teacher in Silo; a grandson, Kale, who’s a “star athlete” there in the fourth grade; and a foster daughter, Constance, in Vancouver, Washington, who is a registered nurse with three children of her own.
“They’re as proud of me as I am of them,” Helms said, fondly.
When asked what life would be like at P.A.W.S. without Helms, Assistant Manager Taylor Ivy replied, without hesitation, “We wouldn’t have a P.A.W.S.”
In addition to the services she provides through P.A.W.S. for a third or less of what it would cost to have the animals spayed or neutered elsewhere in Ada, Helms helps relocate animals to rescue centers in New Jersey and New York.
“In McCurtain County, we’ve saved more than 5,000,” she said.
At 78, Helms seems ready to save another 5,000.