We had one of those houses where Dad had a bullet heater and jack stands in the garage; the neighbors would pour into the house and eat mom’s food. Then we’d go out to the garage and overhaul exhaust systems, rebuild carburetors and swap tires on people’s cars.
My interest in veterinary medicine may have started with my high school biology teacher. I ended up at the University of Illinois, first as a bio, then an ag major. During undergrad, I worked with cattle, and sheep, but my primary job was at the University of Illinois Swine Research Center. I never could figure out why I couldn’t get a second date: eau de swine follows you like the cloud around Pig-Pen from Peanuts.
After graduation, I was hired by a veterinary practice in Lake Mills and I got to use my farm animal experience. The gentleman who gave me my first job, and then I eventually bought the practice from, was in his late sixties. It was Baptism by fire. The day I started was the last time the two-way radio in his car worked. Each morning, he would strategically show up just a little bit before I did and mark half a dozen calls that painted the far reaches of the practice radius, and disappear in a cloud of diesel smoke from his 1980 Oldsmobile. So, I was on my own. If the phone rang, I took care of it. Whether that was a dog that needed to be vaccinated, a cat spay, or a Holstein that needed a C-section.
Over the first third of my career, I practiced primarily production animal medicine and dabbled in dogs and cats. Through the twenty-eight years, I’ve owned the clinic, the large animal practice has dwindled. That’s somewhat by choice. In the recession of 2008, that lasted until 2010, I had a choice to make: hire somebody to do small animals and sit by the phone and hope a farm call came in, or be a small animal vet. Now it’s almost embarrassing how little large animal work our practice does. I mean, it’s down to three percent of our gross income. Anybody in their right mind would have parked the truck and taken a day off during the week, but I don’t care to golf and I’d miss the farmers.
Back when we were navigating the recession, I kept telling my staff, if we can manage to keep our nostrils above water—if we can survive this—then we can get through anything. Resilience is one of the recurring themes in my life. With age comes the realization that when you’re on top, when you’re high when everything is going smoothly, enjoy the hell out of it because it won’t last forever. When the phone ain’t ringing, and the doors ain’t swinging, figure out how you can use the time to your advantage because it won’t last forever either.
Everything you manage to navigate makes you just a little bit stronger. So now the coronavirus. In March and early April, while people were hoarding toilet paper, dog food, and pet supplies, we were so busy our phone was about to melt into the countertop. April and early May, we hit the brakes. Folks were frozen with uncertainty.
I have a staff of twelve. I’m fifty-five years old. I have one technician who has been at the practice six-months longer than me, but everybody else is in their twenties and early thirties. Fear and anxiety are contagious. You realize that how you react and how you don’t react has a major impact on your team. Last spring when Governor Evers shut down all non-essential business, there was no edict to regulate if and how we should do business. It was on us to do what was right, and that was anything but obvious. I digested the flood of emails from our professional associations and called colleagues in the area. We co-evolved the model of parking lot vet practice, but one size does not fit all.
Early on we choked down to a skeleton crew and fielded urgencies and emergencies. By mid-May people started creeping out just a little bit, so we cautiously started to see routine, wellness and preventive appointments.
I can’t say our clinic is unique, but we were early to the party when it comes to minimizing the stress of a veterinary visit. I have one and a half board-certified behaviorists in my practice. We are a low stress handling certified practice.
Families cooped up in their homes adopted pandemic puppies like Beanie Babies in the ’90s. Well, puppies aren’t stuffed animals. Accurate guidance on socialization, housetraining, vaccination, and timing of neutering are crucial to the long-term wellbeing of those new pets. The period between eight and sixteen weeks of age is uber-important. We saw these puppy appointments when there was slightly less demand. It gave us an opportunity to get the families started in the right direction, develop our more distanced approach and hopefully diminish the effect of the inevitable post-pandemic backlog.
With coronavirus, we had to find a way to handle the animals largely in the absence of the owners. There are animals and owners for whom that’s not always possible, or safe. I have a two-car garage at the clinic that was piled like a storage unit. My dad passed two years ago. I had his tools, fishing rods, and inventions on a gorilla rack in the back. There were cardboard boxes, broken printers, and outdated hard drives stacked on the floor. So when the world shut down on Wednesday, March 11th, I swept and stacked, and made it look as decent as I could. I set up a desk, exam table and lights with rubber mats on the concrete floor. We’ve been doing appointments with pets that absolutely require the owner to be present in the garage where there’s more space and a cross-wind. I saw appointments in the garage today, and it was 28 degrees outside.
I take end-of-life issues very seriously, no matter what the state of the coronavirus. I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful acts of humanity in watching people deal with the death of their animals. At nearly every euthanasia a client will remark that they could never be a veterinarian because they couldn’t stand to put animals to sleep. Well, I’ve never once woken up in the morning and said, “God, dang, I hope I get to put Diesel to sleep today.” I have seen full-grown callous-hearted tough guys with grease wedged under their fingernails cry like babies. I’ve gained a whole measure of respect and understanding for people I may not have thought too highly of, as I was putting their animals to sleep. I will not prevent someone from being with their animals, so we started doing those visits in the garage as well.
I don’t care whether you own a hardware store, whether you’re a plumber, a veterinarian, or a banker: we’re all in the relationship business. If my Ace Hardware store is going to make it in the face of Amazon, Home Depot, and Menards, it is by way of service. We maintain those relationships by going out to the parking lot and talking with our clients. This summer we did vaccinations, lameness evaluations, and itchy-dog appointments in the backyard. I have stood in the middle of a rainstorm talking to people about their Pomeranian with pancreatitis in my Helly Hansen monsoon-grade rain gear. Old Man Winter has been kind to us so far, but it’s December. I’ve just ordered my staff heated clothing. We’re going to stand in the parking lot and talk to our friends and clients.
We’re taking care of dogs and cats as best we possibly can. But when you’ve been in the same small-town practice for twenty-nine years, you see your purpose differently. We have elderly clients who don’t have anybody except their pets. Friends like Karen, who’s widowed and lives out in the country. If I can make ninety extra seconds I’m going out in the parking lot and talk to her about splitting firewood and her crazy dog Trooper. I can only hope to be as strong and bright as Jamie is when I’m in my seventies. She grew up in Tennessee, we both love bluegrass music. She says, “Dr. Stork, when this is all over, I’m going to have to join two groups: Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous. This is about to drive me crazy.” And that’s somebody who is on firm footing.
Learning begins when comfort ends. One of the most difficult things for anybody to deal with is uncertainty. Soon, it will be a solid year.
Dad used to say, “if you think you’ve got it tough, just shut your mouth and look around because there’s someone who’s got it worse.” I have friends who are artists, musicians, wait staff, and airline pilots. Their entire industries have been gutted. All I’ve had to do is try and manage a staff that has been scared to death about what this is all going to mean to them, their families and their elderly parents. There’s just been so much unknown.
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