Welcome to the first edition of Scrubs & Pups. We’re sharing the stories of healthcare professionals and their dogs during the pandemic, to understand and keep record of how our lives intersect at this pivotal time in history. We’ve always loved uplifting members of our community, and we’re excited to bring our essential workers to the forefront in a socially distant way. If you know a healthcare professional who loves their dog, you can nominate them via email to be featured in our interview series. We’ll send an Argos & Artemis silk twill scarf and bag of #ArtemisApproved treats over to them. We also want to encourage wearing the mask. For every photo of yourself wearing a mask and your dog on Instagram, tagging @argosandartemis and hashtagging #ScrubsAndPups, we will donate $1 to Americares, providing critical care and emergency supplies around the world.
Andy Nguyen, MD, is a second-year dermatology resident at NYU Langone specializing in gender-affirming dermatology. He got his first-ever dog, Dasher the Alaskan Kee Kai, while he was still in medical school at Harvard. During the height of the pandemic in New York City, Andy and his colleagues found themselves recruited back to the internal medicine wards to take care of COVID-19 patients. He was a volunteer for Masks4Medicine, a now-ended grassroots campaign that donated homemade PPE to healthcare professionals in anticipation of a shortage. On his days off, Andy and Dasher head out of town to go camping and hiking—at only eight pounds, Dasher scales entire mountains on her own.
Did you grow up with dogs?
My parents are originally from Vietnam, and I’ve reasoned out that my parents’ reticence around dogs comes from the fact that in Vietnam, dogs sometimes have rabies. I grew up in a pretty dog-phobic house. But by watching American TV, it always seemed like people had dogs. And I always thought Huskies were really cute, so I always imagined that, in the future, I’d have a Husky. Being a dog person fit into the fantasy I had for the future.
I can relate to that. My family comes from mainland China, and our household was always dog-phobic. But I would watch sitcoms about American families who had dogs, and I’d fantasize about becoming “truly” American once I got a dog.
That’s what I mean. Tom & Jerry and cartoons—they normalized dogs as part of American culture. In combination with all the other ways I wanted to participate in the world, having a dog always seemed part of the plan.
“Gender is a construct—especially in the dog world. Dogs don’t have gender identities.”
So, how did you get Dasher? Was this during medical school?
I was studying for my board exams, which is part of a series of exams that you take in medical school. They say that step two is a lot easier than step one, but it wasn’t. I really drove myself off a wall trying to study for this exam. I was so stressed by the end of it, that I spent more time on Petfinder than I spent studying for the exam.
At first, I thought I’d go the rescue route. But then, it came down to pragmatism. I knew having a dog would be a big commitment, and I wanted to travel, which meant I needed a small dog—not a Husky. I was in Boston at the time, because I went to Harvard for medical school, but I knew I wanted to be in San Francisco or New York afterwards, which meant I would be living in a small apartment.
I started looking at Pomskies and Min Pins, but I also knew that I needed a dog that didn’t bark too much. Then, I accidentally came upon the Alaskan Klee Kai—they’re colloquially known as mini Huskies. They’re a purebred dog recognized by the United Kennel Club, as opposed to the American Kennel Club. They come in four different coat colors, two different eye colors, and three different sizes. I waffled on the sizes for a long time, but the way I came across Dasher was really serendipitous. I actually thought I would get her brother, and then they told me that the little girl was going to be smaller. I’ve heard that if you want to get a good dog, you get a boy, but if you want a great dog, you get a girl and pray. So I decided to take my chances with a little girl dog. I did the praying and she turned out to be a great dog.
How small is Dasher?
She’s eight pounds. She looks a lot bigger in photos because there’s so much fur, but when she takes a shower, she looks like a chihuahua.
Would you consider Dasher an impulse decision, especially since you were in your third year of medical school?
Getting a dog is just like having a kid—the reality is, there’s really no good time to get a dog, aside from a pandemic. The truth is, I was in a really stable relationship and I had this intense urge to nest. I wanted to buy furniture. I wanted to take care of something. I think there’s a real development urge to nest and take care of something in your late 20s, prior to your quarter-life crisis, that inspires someone to get a dog. It was impulsive—but I knew I could do it.
Has Dasher been able to provide you some stability or rootedness, especially during the pandemic?
Yes, people, in general, form their identities in terms of their anchors. You know, you’re the average of the six people you spend the most time with. A dog is just another anchor, and that grounds you. I also think there’s a lot to be learned from having a dog. For example, your dog follows you around the house when you’re eating, and sometimes you end up giving your dog a treat or some food. And the reality is, in my mind, I’m like, luck really does favor the prepared, right? If I’m making a steak, of course Dasher will be getting some.
You tend to do well in life if you’re present. I’ve learned a lot from my dog—she’s given me a good sense of stability and company. I’ve been single for about three years after being a serial monogamist for nine years, and having a dog has actually made that a lot easier. The biggest gift I’ve gotten from Dasher is feeling much less urgency to date and figure out my romantic life. Having a dog enables you to be alone without being lonely.
What is dating like as a single dog dad, and how important is identifying as a dog dad when it comes to dating?
Dasher features prominently on all my photos on the apps I use—Grindr, Tindr, and Hinge. But I wouldn’t say that being a dog person is a primary driver. As we said earlier, a lot of people have different experiences with different dogs. Their “dog résumé” is going to be different from mine. And people are at different points in their lives in terms of having a penchant for caretaking. I’m willing to accept that.
I did recently date someone who also had a dog, and that was pretty attractive, because they understood the whole shtick around having parts of your day blocked out or committed to your animal.
“I’ve heard that if you want to get a good dog, you get a boy, but if you want a great dog, you get a girl and pray.”
Has Dasher changed your parents’s relationship or attitude towards dogs?
It’s been a slow process. When I first got her, they asked if she had fleas. But now they’ve come around. I wouldn’t say they’re playful with Dasher. They misread a lot of cues, like if she’s playfully barking, they misread it as aggression. But they trust that I know what I’m doing. We’re not at the goal yet, but we’re making progress.
How did the name Dasher come about?
Christmas is my favorite holiday, and little Husky dogs like to run, so I thought it’d be cute to name the dog after one of the reindeers. Dasher was a boy reindeer though, and I chose the name thinking I was going to get the boy dog. But then I got the girl dog. This was 2016, so I thought: Gender is a construct—especially in the dog world. Dogs don’t have gender identities. They have sexes, and organs, but not gender.
I also entertained the idea of naming her Foxy Lady, because she looks like a little fox. But I committed to the Dasher name, and it’s fitting.
Tell us more about Dasher’s personality—what makes her Dasher?
I’m a strong believer that dogs take after their owners. Dasher and I have a lot in common. She’s barks at other dogs when she’s on the leash because she wants to say hi. She’s aggressively friendly. She’s a dog’s dog—she loves other dogs more than humans. She’s pretty independent, too. And that’s how I’d describe myself.
Especially as a doctor, how has the pandemic changed your life with Dasher?
I’m a second-year dermatologist resident at NYU, and for a period of time, our clinics were closed down, so I spent a lot of time at home with Dasher, which I don’t typically get to do. For a while, it was a blessing to spend more time with my dog. And then there was a period of time where we were recruited back to the internal medicine wards, taking care of COVID-19 patients. In that sense, I spent a lot less time with my dog because I was working 60-to-80 hours a week, taking care of patients, which is something I had done for a year after med school, but not something you’d expect to do again. But things have settled down again.
This is kind of funny and sad, but I got the stimulus check, and all of a sudden, I finally had expendable income to buy stuff for Dasher. I got her an elevated dog bed from Whom Home, which matched our interior design.
The most amazing thing I bought was the Timbuk2 Muttmover Backpack. You can stuff your dog in there, and it’s not uncomfortable for them. I can bike with Dasher now, and she’s been around the city a lot more than she previous had been. Now, she goes everywhere I go.
You take Dasher camping, right?
Dasher is definitely an outdoor dog. There are these philosophies around animal development, and that what dogs encounter for the first 16 weeks of their lives are what they perceive to be normal. When Dasher was really young, we went hiking a lot. She does the entire hike herself, and she has really good intuition for climbing big rocks. I’ve never owned my own camping gear until now, but that’s also what I spent my stimulus check on. I got a two-person tent for Dasher and me.
How does Dasher like to play?
Her favorite toy is this big Mallard duck that I got her when she was a puppy. It’s pretty much the same size as she is. Whenever she bites on something, she’ll growl the entire time that we’re playing tug. It’s very cute, but if you don’t know, Dasher can sound aggressive. She chases balls, but she does not fetch.
She also likes to wrestle with other dogs. She’s pretty small, but because she interacted with big dogs when she was young, she’s good at auto-regulating and knowing when to throw in the towel. With puppies, you get scared that they’ll get trampled, but that’s an experience they learn from.
Has Dasher helped you make friends in the move from Boston to New York?
I think just as a function of needing to walk your dog—getting out of your house—will help you make friends. It hasn’t happened so much in New York, but when we were living in Boston, we made some really good friends in the Klee Kai community. There are only about 50 breeders in the U.S., and a lot of the owners actually know each other. We’d get together for meetups and hikes. I haven’t really plugged back into that group of people in New York yet.
What does Dasher eat?
She eats Primal Raw Frozen Formulas. We used to only feed raw, but she would get sick of her raw food. So we’ve been combining with kibble, and she’s pretty happy with that.
Tell us about Dasher’s wellness routine. How do you keep her healthy?
Exercise and getting into nature is really important—it’s something that humans benefit from, too. I always try to get out of the city and go hiking once or twice a month. We go to places where there are a lot of smells. That’s how I keep her active and in a good meditative state.
What is Dasher’s grooming routine?
She naturally blows her coat two times a year. She has some mild shredding throughout the year. I recently got a FURminator, and that helps. Klee Kai clean themselves—they’re like cats.
During the height of the pandemic when you were working 60-to-80 hours a week, how did you maintain your mental health? Did Dasher help at all?
I have really good friends and family, and in the hardest of times, they really pick me up and carry me across the finish line. Having Dasher around was nice, but I was actually stressed, because what if I got sick and had to go the hospital? Who would take care of Dasher? That stressed me out.
Did the pandemic affirm your decision to become a doctor?
After you graduate med school, you begin your intern year, in which you work 80 hours a week in either general surgery or general medicine. That usually looks like long hours, time in the emergency room, on the floors, and in the ICU. You’re spending a lot of time doing things you will never do again. People don’t always appreciate the value of that. There are a lot of general competences learned that year that are essential to being any type of doctor.
For example, in the ICU, you’re doing a lot of working around end-of-life care, and talking about people’s judgments and values. Those are things that you carry on with you to your practice, no matter what kind of doctor you become. I always viewed this as something that I signed up for, and it was a meaningful part of what we’re supposed to do. I’m fortunate in that I really loved my intern year. I was with a great set of people, and people really matter.
You’re a dermatology resident, right?
Right. The entire reason I went into medicine because I was interested in healthcare disparities. I was interested in LGBT health. I was interested in women’s health, and I was interested in health policy. I had a background in doing some basic science research in cell division, which is basically what goes wrong in cancer. I also waffled around for a bit. I was also interested in sexual health.
I thought about doing urology or becoming an OB-GYN. And then I did some coursework over at Harvard Medical School in LGBT health, specially around transgender medicine, and what the transitioning process looks like from a medical and surgical prospective. For example, there was this complication where we knew that transgender women on hormone therapy would get severe acne, and you’re giving them severe acne for the rest of their lives. So, do you put them on Accutane? Well, if you put them on Accutane, that’s a contraindication to surgery. It’s a really interesting question.
I became really interested in the role of skin doctors and skin diseases in transgender medicine. Additionally, I was in college, the Gardasil vaccine came out, and I used to do some work in health policy. So, I’ve always been curious about like HPV, because it’s the most common STD. Not only is it the most common, but also it’s one of the most mortal—a chlamydia infection won’t really kill you, but if HPV infects the wrong part of the body, it can actually progress to cancer.
I’m interested in going into academic dermatology with an interest in three things. One is using dermatology to help patients transition—gender-affirming dermatology. I’m also interested in learning about treating and managing skin disease related to HPV. And I’m interested in teaching my peers more about how to use the right words so that their patients can feel as comfortable as possible, and be the best doctors they can be.
Thanks so much for sharing that with us. Dasher is so lucky to have you as her dad. How has she changed your life the most?
Being single is a big city is really hard, and dating in New York’s really hard. Having a dog makes it much less harder. I encourage single people to get dogs and have a place to put their love—rather than in unrequited relationships or dates that don’t work out. Being single is always hard—but being single is less hard with a dog.
Photography by Tayler Smith