My Cocker Spaniel Jodi

Posted on January 01, 2010

I have a couple of pictures of myself as an idealistic 9-year old with my Cocker Spaniel, Jodi, who had the profound gift of patience to allow me to do checkups on her, discuss her medical conditions, in great detail and dreadful terminology, with her, and write reports summarizing my findings. With a twinkle in my eye as I carried out my “duties”, I knew I would become a veterinarian. I would save the animal world.

Like other idealists, I grew up, but, perhaps, not completely. My dreams became a little smaller (which was good, after all), but I still felt called to take a few risks to live out, in some way, what I felt called to do. Some risks are bad. I have been abundantly capable of making bad choices that have led to deep regret. Others are good. Marriage and children are astonishingly risky, but have been joyful for me. In the Fall, I decided to take another risk and start my very own small animal practice. Like much of life, the journey is sometimes more telling than the final result. Here are a few musings gleaned from the process, and some stories to accompany them.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my career to work with impeccable colleagues, from whom I have learned a lot. The decision to “do it on my own” offered challenges as well as opportunities. As I was planning and designing and financing the clinic, I also lived the life of a “relief veterinarian.” This meant that I would fill in for other doctors who might be on vacation or recovering from surgery, for example, and work in a variety of practices. This meant some very long days, several overnight emergency stints, and a lot of driving. It also offers the chance to meet many other veterinarians, see new and different protocols and facilities, and work with some terrific staff people. With a new facility under construction and new accounts being set up for drugs and supplies, my cell phone became my business and personal lifeline while I was working at various practices. Many a good-natured technician would roll his or her eyes every time my “pants rang.” Truthfully, I am happy for the fact that I could do relief work. It can be a great exercise in grace to work with other practitioners and a diverse group of clients, and to realize that we share a lot of similar joys and frustrations. I am less likely to be judgmental about other veterinarians today than a year ago.

Days when I wasn’t doing relief work, I would be home with my three children, the computer, some blueprints, and the ubiquitous cell phone. One memorable scene occurred when I was deep in discussion with a possible receptionist candidate on the phone. My potty-training 3-year old shouted from the top of the stairs, “Daddy, WIPE ME!” Maintaining professionalism is strained anytime after one shouts back to a pre-schooler, “You’re a big boy! Do it yourself and I’ll check you when you think you’re done!” I somehow suspected that Andrew Carnegie had no such conversations while building his empire.

Hiring staff was the single most important thing I would do. It was, in a lot of ways, the most stressful. Lacking an office, it meant setting up interviews across Indianapolis. As the sole member of the “Human Resources Department,” I got to make initial calls, do interviews, call references, negotiate rates of pay, and call the people that I had to pass on. I was impressed and thrilled with the quality of applicants I got (and, obviously, excited about the people who came aboard), though it will be some time before I feel like starting every interview with the words, “Venti, no room for cream.”

Construction was quick and, generally, painless, though our opening received multiple delays from successive snowstorms. Computer training happened in a building with no ceiling or heat some days. The phone number assigned to us proved to be wrong, after it appeared in the phone book. One phone book lost our ad altogether. Our address proved to be wrong, with the town incorrectly identified. And our first few clients were an amazing patient bunch, helping us through computer curiosities and delays in medication arriving.

We are one month into the new practice, and the routine is becoming smoother. We have already shared laughter and tears with people and their pets. I still sometimes walk through this place with a sense of wonder, where a dirt floor stood four months ago, I have the sounds of dogs, cats, children, groomer’s clippers, surgical monitors, and phones. This continues to be an amazing adventure and a remarkable way to make a living.

And sometimes in the mirror I can catch a little bit of that twinkle again, and I think I may have a chance of helping save a little piece of the world.