Melanie Steele of Bluffton with her greyhounds Grange, Tripp, Vera, Gia and Santo.HOLLI MURPHY

When her veterinarian referred her aging Weimaraner to a cardiologist at the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at North Carolina State University, then-Charlotte resident Melanie Steele began a relationship with the institution that changed more than the life of her beloved pet.

The result of that exceptional care at the veterinary college is the recent awarding of the Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professorship in Medicine to Dr. Edward B. Breitschwerdt, a staff member of CVM who teaches, does research and continues to see clinical cases at the veterinary college.

“The dog was prescribed medicine that lengthened his life by about three years,” said Steele. “He was older when it happened, and he passed when he was 12, so that was a good decision.”

Impressed by her pet’s treatment by the staff, she began taking her animals that needed specialty care to the CVM.

That was 30 years ago, and Steele, who moved to Bluffton seven years ago, continues to travel to N.C. State for other than routine care.

The professorship is a permanent position paid from an endowment fund specifically set aside for that purpose. Steele serves on the board of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Foundation; the endowment includes a substantial gift from her as well as matching funds.

“I feel tremendously grateful to be able to give back to this institution that has been wonderful to me and my surrogate family,” said Steele in a recent phone conversation as her dogs romped in the background. “I wanted to give something to someone who was doing more than just research – someone who was still teaching and imparting knowledge and doing something that will help not only animals around the world, but humans as well.”

She now raises and carefully breeds Greyhounds for herself, several of which have won different awards in national dog shows. GrandCru Giaconda – or Gia – won Best of Breed at the 2015 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Gia’s siblings are also show winners.

Breitschwerdt’s research now centers on the bartonella bacteria.

It causes serious illness in humans, domestic and wild animals, the most common of which are cat scratch disease, trench fever and carrion’s disease, transmitted normally by fleas, lice and sand gnats, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In seeking a way to do more than serve on the board, Steele recalled a comment then-CVM Dean Warwick Arden made.

“He stressed the importance of distinguished professorships to any college because they bring prestige. He sort of planted the seed to that idea,” she said.

Through years of conversations with Allison Crouch, a friend and foundation board director, Steele learned what other people were doing and what a professorship would mean to the school and the research.

“I would rather be doing something that really has some meaning in the human-animal bond concept. We talked for years and I found myself able to do something,” said Steele.

“It’s bigger than I thought it would be. For me, I’m honored to be a part of Dr. Breitschwerdt’s life mission. He’s unbelievably humble,” she said. “To be there on the day of the ceremony and listen to his colleagues and students was one of the highlights of my life.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.