TAMPA — Stuart Rosenburg lived life large.
His childhood dream was to become a veterinarian, and he did, but his education didn’t end with that degree. He went on to become a specialist in Eastern medicine, practicing acupuncture and herbology on his four-legged clients.
Before small animals, Rosenburg specialized in wildlife care at Lowry Park Zoo. And he would have stayed there had he not taken a trip to Africa and witnessed native animals living free in their natural habitat.
“No more captive animals,” he told Gayle Marie Merrill, his girlfriend of 14 years who became his wife in April.
He was a global explorer, taking trips with Merrill all over the world. He scuba dived in exotic locations like the Galapagos Islands and skydived wherever he lived, making more than 500 jumps in all. He ate organic food and began training for a marathon.
But 18 months ago, Rosenburg could not shake a persistent cough. At first he thought it was pneumonia. Tests revealed improbable news: It was Stage 4 lung cancer.
For a vigorous health nut who never smoked a day in his life, it was shocking news.
“He always thought he would beat it,” Merrill says. “But he didn’t dwell on it, either. He just went full speed ahead, getting the most out of life.”
Rosenburg’s cancer-fighting regimen included both traditional medicine ordered by his doctors and the Eastern alternative healing methods he had always embraced. Between the two, Merrill says, “he thought he had it all covered.”
Rosenburg continued working for as long as he could at the state-of-the-art veterinary facility he designed and opened just two years ago on Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa. He finally sold his practice at the Bayshore Animal Clinic to a husband-wife veterinary team in June. Then he bought a 31-foot recreational vehicle and told Merrill they were taking a two-month road trip.
“Really?” she asked incredulously. That wasn’t her style. But she knew better than to argue with her mate, who could be both determined and impetuous. So off they went, with their two elderly dogs, Miss Pid (short for Stupid), a shepherd mix, and Ghangis Goat, a terrier mix, on their adventure. They traveled north to Maine, over to Niagara Falls on the Canada side and back south through Tennessee, where Rosenburg got his degree in veterinary medicine in 1993.
He never felt better, climbing mountain trails and hiking up to 7 miles a day.
When they got home in late August, Rosenburg began planning their next trip: India in March, he told Merrill. But that turned out to be one dream he would not realize.
On Nov. 19, after a brief setback, Rosenburg died at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He was 46.
Tenia Pennington, his longtime office manager, said she and her boss used to joke about working at the clinic until they were so old that they would need wheelchairs to get around. And when that happened, “we were planning to have wheelchair races.”
Even though many of his former clients knew he had been diagnosed with cancer, the news was still jolting. They all had colorful memories of their vet: how he would get on the examining room floor to converse eye to eye with their pets; give them recipes such as a healthful doggie quiche made of broccoli, white fish and spinach; or show them how to give their cats a therapeutic massage.
“He was in good spirits and looked pretty good,” says Gina Pratt, a family resource coordinator at St. Joe’s. She visited him shortly before he died. “Stu was just so full of life, humor and compassion that it’s hard to think of him as gone.”
Pratt and her husband, Wes, took their 14-year-old chow mix dog to Rosenburg several years ago after hearing about the vet who practiced acupuncture. Bandit had a torn ligament and was wearing a brace.
“The first thing he said was, ‘Off with that brace.’ Then he started the needle work on his back and knee, and it was like a miracle,” she says. “He went from limping to walking to running again. Bandit was with us for another four years, and I give all the credit to Stu.”
K.C. Harrison had a similar experience with Boo, her Bernese mountain dog, who was suffering from arthritis. Five years ago, Rosenburg replaced steroids with acupuncture, and the dog rebounded.
“He’s been prancing like a puppy ever since,” Harrison says of her now 10-year-old dog. “Stu was always looking for a way to treat your pets that wouldn’t make them feel toxic or sick. And you would always get a personal follow-up call to make sure all was well.”
Many of his clients ended up becoming his friends. Mary and Jerry Fussell were among those whose relationship went beyond the clinic. The couple first met him when they brought in their aging cat, Pookie, who was suffering from kidney failure and required weekly fluid injections.
Rosenberg told them he was studying animal acupuncture and asked whether Pookie could be his first subject and the focus of his research paper.
They agreed. Not only did Pookie respond to the treatment — Mary Fussell says her cat’s “whole aura changed” — she went on to live to age 22.
Putting a beloved pet down is a difficult decision. Mary Fussell says when Pookie went blind and became disoriented, she knew it was time. She called Rosenburg, who was on the way to the theater with Merrill.
“We’ll stop at the clinic to get what we need, and we’ll be right over to your house after the show,” he promised. They arrived at 10:30 p.m. and told the Fussells to take as much time as they needed to say goodbye.
“Who does that anymore?” Fussell asks. “I’m going to miss his quick wit and his brilliance. Even though he left us way too soon, he taught us all how to squeeze every ounce out of life.”
A public celebration of Rosenburg’s life will take place from 4 to 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at Aja Channelside, 290 S. Meridian Ave., Tampa. Merrill says fraternity brothers and veterinarians from all over the country will be flying in for what will be both a “roast and spiritual send-off” for her longtime love.
Pratt says she gets comfort in knowing her vet is still surrounded by loving friends.
“When he got to heaven,” she says, “there were thousands of happy pets waiting for him.”