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Awards and Honors

For Giving Her All for Olive, Small Animal Surgery Resident Awarded Coat of Excellence

Dr. Sarah Saylor provided advice and comfort to an Apex family grappling with their pit bull’s mesothelioma diagnosis, sparking a heartfelt contribution that will aid other pets at the NC State Veterinary Hospital.

Two smiling veterinarians wearing white doctor's coats stand beside two clients in a garden outside a veterinary hospital.
Proudly wearing her Olive Wilder Coat of Excellence, small animal surgery resident Dr. Sarah Saylor stands between Tom and Tonya Wilder and alongside Dr. Kyle Mathews, a professor of soft tissue and oncologic surgery. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)

As Tom Wilder’s pit bull mix, Olive, became critically ill late last year, Dr. Sarah Saylor was always just a phone call away.

The rising second-year small animal surgery resident’s reassuring words and professional advice became a source of comfort in Wilder’s life when Olive’s late-stage mesothelioma diagnosis during the holiday season upended so much else.

But despite their profound communication over the phone and email, Wilder and Saylor did not meet in person until he awarded her the Olive Wilder Coat of Excellence at the NC State Veterinary Hospital this month.

“I just can’t thank you enough,” Wilder told Saylor as he handed her a white veterinarian’s coat with her name embroidered in red below Olive’s. “And the whole vet school. Everyone was so caring and top-notch, all the way around, and always made me feel so welcome and loved.”

For Wilder and his wife, Tonya, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Coat of Excellence program was the perfect way to recognize Saylor for counseling their family through the treatment options for the incurable type of cancer found on Olive’s heart.

The program offers Veterinary Hospital clients an opportunity to honor faculty veterinarians, interns, residents or staff members who made a difference in their family’s lives and those of their pets. 

The $10,000 donation supports research and care across the Veterinary Hospital, with the majority of funds benefiting needs within the honoree’s service area. It also provides recipients a personalized lab coat with their patient’s name and recognizes them with a plaque displayed in the hospital.

“I was very humbled to receive the coat from the Wilders, and it made me so aware of how important it is to take the time to have those meaningful conversations with owners,” Saylor says. “It means so much to people to have someone guide them through difficult decisions. Olive’s case shows just how important that can be.”

A collage of five photos featuring a man snuggling his tan-and-white pit bull mix.
Tom Wilder and his pit bull mix, Olive, shared a special bond. “I love her more than anything in the world,” Wilder says. (Courtesy of Tom Wilder)

Wilder has owned dogs his entire life, but he shared a bond like no other with Olive. He adopted her from the Wake County Animal Shelter in July 2021, when vets estimated her to be between 3 and 5 years old.

“I thought she was the prettiest dog I’d ever seen,” he says. “She is the smartest dog I’ve ever had. I love her more than anything in the world — I still do.”

Though he grew up in Raleigh as an NC State fan, Wilder had never visited the Veterinary Hospital until Olive got sick. 

When Olive stopped eating in November and couldn’t keep down what little she ate, her veterinarian in Apex noticed fluid accumulating around her heart in a condition called pericardial effusion. A veterinary cardiologist in Cary — and NC State alumna — helped drain the fluid but referred Olive to the college’s Veterinary Hospital for further care.

At NC State, surgeons including Saylor performed a subtotal pericardiectomy, a procedure to remove part of the membrane surrounding Olive’s heart that was retaining the fluid. They found a mass during the Dec. 7 procedure, and a biopsy showed it to be late-stage mesothelioma with a poor prognosis.

Olive returned to NC State in the weeks after her surgery, struggling with continued fluid buildup around her heart, lungs and abdomen due to the aggressive cancer. Wilder wrestled with Olive’s options, knowing any care she received would be palliative.

Two days after Christmas, he reached out to Olive’s care team and reconnected with Saylor.

“She was just so caring and compassionate with me on the phone,” Wilder says. “People have a lot of things going on — you can’t even get a nurse to call you back when it concerns humans and our doctors. But every time I asked Dr. Saylor to call me, she called me, and I know that she didn’t have to. It just meant so much to me, and I’d feel at ease every time.”

A female veterinarian holds a white doctor's coat as a client looks on, smiling.
Wilder and Saylor admire the Olive Wilder Coat of Excellence, which bears Saylor’s name embroidered below Olive’s. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)

With support from Saylor and Olive’s vet team, the Wilders let Olive go in early January. They decided to contribute to the college in her honor this spring.

“If it hadn’t been for NC State, I wouldn’t have had Olive as long as I did,” Wilder says. “And I so cherish that last month I had with her, thanks to that surgery and her care afterward. I love everybody up there, and I’ll never forget what they did for me and for Olive.”

For Saylor, supporting Olive and her family was a reminder of the power of empathy.

“As veterinarians, the vast majority of our job is, ultimately, communicating with people,” she says. “I found myself really empathizing with Mr. Wilder, because it was obvious that he had a really special relationship with Olive. It’s gratifying to know that I made a difference in her care.”

The recipient of a Coat of Excellence also receives a share of the donation as a cash award. Saylor used the Wilders’ gift to buy herself a pair of surgical loupes, magnifying lenses that aid with precision during procedures but can be costly on a resident’s budget. 

She’ll use them to help pets like Olive.

“That makes my heart feel good,” Wilder says. “I’ll always remember that. Olive’s legend lives on.”

For more information on how you can honor an exemplary caregiver at the NC State Veterinary Hospital, contact the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Foundation at or call 919-513-6660.
Wilder and Saylor embrace after he handed her the box containing her Coat of Excellence. (John Joyner/NC State College of Veterinary Medicine)