dr Robert Virtue at Purple Paws
dr Robert Tugen could be considered a local celebrity among San Diego pet owners. After building himself an incredible reputation as a veterinarian in the city, virtue has returned to practice in Coronado at Purple Paws Pet Clinic.
Virtue grew up in Coronado when it was still a quiet and quaint community, when the only way one could travel to and from the Navy town was by ferry. He recalled a time in his youth when the Coronado Bridge was still being built and he would wander to the top of the half-finished project and dangle his feet off the edge.
Like many young adults, he soon felt the need to move on from his hometown and after graduating from Coronado High School, he attended Sonoma State University to study psychology. However, after finishing his senior year, he came to the realization that psychology was not the field for him. He returned to school as a pre-vet. major where he learned how to treat a variety of animals from cats to cows.
“I [realized I] have an aptitude for this,” he said of his decision to pursue veterinary science. “And I think that’s true for a lot of things, a lot of professions that we do, you just have an innate feeling for that job, it just seemed to fit for me. I jumped right into it and didn’t stop. And still, I have that passion about it. Sometimes I describe coming to work as sort of like Christmas morning, every morning, because I never know what the next thing is going to be.”
After completing his second undergraduate degree, virtue left the states and headed to the Philippines to attend veterinary school.
In the Philippines, he said, he experienced incredible culture shock and some very beautiful moments as well.
“The thing you learn most in a third-world country is that there are no rules,” he said. “When you get into a taxi cab, it’s your responsibility to walk around and make sure it has four tires on it. It all becomes your total responsibility to care for yourself and that was new to me.”
Although he also said he was able to experience the beauty of the country, in its beaches and coral reefs, and the beauty of its people through their incredible hospitality, it took a few months for him to feel comfortable living in such a different environment, where poverty and suffering was a common sight on the street.
“I had a round trip ticket and I kept that second part of my ticket in my top drawer for about six months because it was so different,” he said.
But he soon adjusted to life in the Philippines and created a home away from home with other students studying at the university alongside him. He was also often invited into the homes of local families and given a place to stay or food to eat.
One family, who came across Virtue sleeping out under the stars on a beach, invited him into their home to stay with them instead. Weeks later, when their young daughter developed tetanus from a cut on her knee, the family brought their sick child to Tugend’s university. Virtue and the other veterinary students were able to keep the child fed through a tube and supply her with antibiotics needed to treat the infection.
After his adventure in the Philippines, he returned to San Diego and worked at Main Street Animal Hospital, now VCA Main Street, in Barrio Logan. He worked with household pets like cats and dogs and has been taking care of the canines of the San Diego Police Department and Highway Patrol since they first began the canine program.
“The most rewarding part is the ability to make something better,” Virtue said. “Whether it’s something sick or whether it’s broken something, because there’s two parts to that, there’s the animal, and then there’s the owner.”
“One of the most frustrating parts is that it all revolves around money,” he added.
Any pet owner knows that vet bills can add up quickly, but virtue said he would try to do procedures for less than they would normally cost if he knew a family could not afford it. It wasn’t something he was able to do often, but it was one of the ways he was able to build trust and understanding with the families of his furry patients.
“I think I was really fortunate when I was a young veterinarian to work with people that taught me that it’s not just a slam dunk business,” Tugend said. “You just don’t go out there and say, ‘Oh, you need to do this, you need to do that.’ You listen, and you talk, you build trust. It’s that kind of trust that makes my practice something I really care about.”
He said his guiding light was the golden rule, he tries to treat each pet owner that enters his practice exactly how he would wish to be treated if he had a sick or injured pet.
Tugend’s skill for treating animals, as well as the strong connections he fosters with pet owners, is why people from Coronado and over the bridge continue to trust their furry friends in his care.