Petaluma Profile: Animal surgeon-athlete keeps busy life in balance

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Animal doctor Tim Helms — a resident surgeon at Petaluma’s Central Animal Hospital — loves competing in the annual XTERRA World Championship off-road triathlon in Hawaii. But Helms won’t join the race this year. He only allows himself to compete every other year.

That’s because he has a life to keep in balance.

At the XTERRA, gifted amateurs like Helms compete with professional triathletes from around the world. He relishes the bloody, muddy, gut-wrenching insanity of it — a mile-long ocean swim, a 20-mile mountain bike ride that climbs 3,500 feet, and a 6.5-mile trail run.

“I like the rough stuff,” he says, especially the part that takes place on his bike. “Mountain biking is my passion.”

Helms first qualified for the race in 2012, repeated in 2016, and again in 2018, when he placed 85th among 800 competitors. In the 2018 race, he and the hospital raised $1,500 for the Center for Companion Animal Health at his alma mater, the Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Participating clinics and practitioners honor clients who have recently lost a companion animal by sending the names of client, patient and clinic to the center, along with a donation in their honor.

But there is more to life than training for the big race.

He and his wife, Jessica, have three children to raise — Jackson, 9, Ryder, 6, and Maeanna, 3. And as resident surgeon at the Animal Hospital, he is responsible for patching up an endless parade of broken dogs, cats and other creatures.

Helms specializes in advanced procedures that many veterinary surgeons don’t typically do. For example, he performs a tibial-plateau-leveling osteotomy (TPLO), which stabilizes the stifle joint, or rear-leg “knee,” after ruptures of the cranial cruciate ligament (ACL). He also performs medial patella luxation (MPL) to correct popping out of the kneecap.

Helms also helps out Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue.

He recently repaired the fractured pelvis of a skunk the nonprofit brought to him.

As for the 2020 championship triathlon, Helms is eager for the challenge, but he is also a realist who understands the limits of a body, whether of man or beast. As he approaches his forties, he knows that time is running out to achieve his singular XTERRA goal — to place in the top 60, an amateur among the pros.

If he is ever going to do it, 2020 is the year.

To stay in shape, Helms runs five or six mornings a week, with distances of six to seven miles, although he occasionally runs up to 25 miles. He often runs with his older dog, Mo, 4, a Jack Russell Terrier-Australian Shepherd mix that Helms calls his “rockstar runner.” The younger dog, Arizona, 1, a female Basenji-pit-bull cross, is a “runner in training.”

Helms also tries to get in a couple of 25-mile mountain bike rides each week, always on trails.

“I don’t want to get run over,” he says.

He favors Trione-Annadel State Park, where Lake Ilsanjo allows him to include a swim session. He also rides in Helen Putnam Regional Park.

Helms grew up near the ocean, took up surfing, and has always been comfortable with ocean swimming. Nonetheless, swimming is the weak link in his triathlon performances.

“I have often finished second because of the swimming stage,” he says, adding, “I like competing. And I like showing my kids that it’s good to have a passion besides doing well in school, that life is more balanced that way.”

Jessica Helms is also a runner, competing in road and trail races, and the occasional marathon. She was an all-star at Alhambra High School in Martinez, and All-American at UC Davis in cross country. Currently a homemaker, she trained as a behaviorist with autistic children and worked delivering in-home therapy in Sacramento while Helms was in vet school.

Animals and athletics have always been part of Helms’ life.

“As a child, I wanted to be a scientist or biologist,” Helms says. “We had lots of pets growing up in Poway, near San Diego. We had two acres, with miles and miles of hills behind us.”

Helms attended UC Davis on a track and field scholarship, graduating with a BA in biotechnology in 2004. In 2003, he received All-American honors, placing fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA National Championships.

In the steeplechase, competitors must jump over obstacles, four immoveable barriers and one water jump, as they make their way around the track. This suited Helms.

“It changed the dynamics of running track for me,” he says. “It was more enjoyable.”

Degree in hand and now married, Helms worked in biotech for two years.

“I soon realized I didn’t want to spend my life in a lab,” he says.

So he returned to UC Davis, choosing to specialize in animal biology. He further specialized in “food-small,” meaning animals raised for food, such as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs; and small animals such as cats and dogs.

“I did a lot of surgery on food animals at Davis,” he says. Asked why animal producers would spend money on surgery, he cited stud bulls, favorite animals, and “good producers.”

Achieving his DVM in 2010, Helms took a position with a clinic in Ukiah, where he was given most of the surgical assignments.

“I got a load of experience there,” he says. Then he moved on to Central Animal Hospital in Petaluma.

The hospital has deep roots in town. Founded in 1927, it moved to its current location in 1949. In 2002, the facility was purchased by Matthew Carter, DMV, and his wife Jennifer. The Carters upgraded the building, adding examination rooms, an indoor playroom for daycare dogs, and a separate room for boarding cats. In 2010, they invited Helms to join them as a co-owner.

Dr. Carter also graduated from UC Davis. After working with both large and small animals in Oakdale, in the San Joaquin Valley, he spent two years working as a veterinarian in and around London, England, and several years working with small animals in the Bay Area before coming to Petaluma. The team at the hospital includes Lindsey Alman, BVMS, Sharon Zweiter, DVM, and Brittany Barrows, RVT.

“People here in Petaluma are fantastic pet owners,” Helms says. “They tend to be highly educated and compassionate. We do a big education effort, from why to have your pet’s teeth cleaned to why TPLO may be the right solution for the injury. The vast majority of the folks we serve follow our recommendations for best care.”

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