By John Andersen, DVM
I’m going to talk about a sensitive topic: money.
Just as I was about to enter my last appointment of the evening a few weeks ago, our receptionist interrupted me. “Dr. Andersen, I’ve got a woman on the phone. She’s hysterical because her dog’s eye is hanging out of the socket and bleeding everywhere. And she says she has no money.”
I have to admit, this was not what I wanted to hear at 5:30 p.m. as I’m wrapping up my day and getting ready to go home and spend time with my family. The problem here was three-fold. First, it was the end of the day and this was clearly not a situation I was going to be able to quickly resolve. A dog with its eye hanging out of the socket would clearly need surgery, which includes anesthesia and plenty of post-operative monitoring. We simply did not have the capability at that time of day.
Problem two was that these clients had no money. They were both unemployed (chronically) and barely had enough gas in their car to drive to our hospital. They were not being “cheap.” They really just had no money for this problem. Also, they were not even our clients—their regular veterinarian was closed. And unfortunately, providing health care costs money. And that’s the sticky subject, right?!
I have to give a disclaimer here to my readers that I grew up truly appreciating the value of a dollar. I was raised in a single-parent home, shopped for clothes at Goodwill, have had a job since I was nine years old and worked hard and paid my way through school with student loans and waiting tables. So I’m very sensitive to the fact that veterinary care is expensive and clients are paying us directly out of their pockets.
Just why is veterinary care so expensive? Why did my pet’s annual exam with shots, heartworm pills, and flea medicine just cost me $300? Remember that there is not typically insurance to offset these costs. So what you pay is what we use to keep the hospital open and running. Veterinary hospitals are all small businesses running on a very tight profit margin because there is not insurance to inflate the costs of care. Because those dollars come directly out of your pocket, they need to go farther. Consider a spay surgery on a female dog (an ovariohysterectomy). At most veterinary hospitals this will cost a few hundred dollars, whereas the same procedure on a human is going to cost around $10,000. Same procedure, same anesthesia. Obviously just a different system on the human side, and rightly so. So in the end, what often seems like a huge expense for you is really covering rent, utilities, drug inventory, diagnostic and therapeutic equipment costs, continuing education, licensing fees, and staffing costs including assistants, receptionists, veterinary technicians, bookkeepers, CPAs, and of course veterinarians. And you’ll just have to trust me that we veterinarians are not rolling in it! (My dad told me I should’ve gone into human medicine!)
So back to problem number two, this client had no money. So who pays for this dog’s surgery? If we do this dog’s surgery pro bono, it will literally cost our hospital hundreds of dollars. This is just like going to a grocery store and leaving with a few carts full of groceries without paying. Can a small business really afford that? What about when you have to cancel an hour’s worth of appointments to do this surgery? Now it’s a double hit.
That brings me to problem number three: who is going to help these people? Am I going to punt it down the road, which is sure to end with nobody helping them? Am I going to go in carte blanche, knowing it’s going to cost our hospital hundreds of dollars (that we need to pay staff, bills, etc.)? Am I just going to tell the people, “We can’t help you. Good luck.”?
I will admit that at that moment, I was a bit annoyed. Someone else’s problem had now out of nowhere become my problem.
But I got into this field because I care and we will never decline helping someone in need. I told them to bring the dog in and went to see my 5:30 appointment, apologizing for running behind. These were some really nice clients with two great dogs. I later heard the front door chime and explained that I had to run.
The poor “eye dog” was a mess. It was 15, blind, had significant heart disease, horrible dental disease, and was generally in poor condition. Not to mention the bloody eyeball that was hanging down by its mouth. After carefully assessing the situation, I recommended putting the dog to sleep. I was pretty convinced this dog was not going to fare well. The owners weren’t ready for that and decided they were going to go back to their regular vet in the morning. I loaded the dog up with pain meds and wound care and wished them luck.
I later found out that when my 5:30 clients were checking out, they asked our receptionist if they could help those people and pay their bill! We had never discussed those clients’ financial situation, yet somehow they sensed some help was needed.
This hit me like a rock. I realized I had been judging and complaining, yet these folks sensed a need and without judging or condemning, simply asked if they could help. The Rev. Billy Graham once said, “It’s not our job to judge. It’s our job to love.” Amen to that.
Two weeks later I got a card from the owners of the “eye dog.” They wanted to thank us and let us know how much they appreciated our help and that of our kind client. They sadly shared that the dog died the following night, but they were at peace with that because of all the help and kindness they received. This was my official intro to the 2012 Christmas season. May we all gain strength to judge others less and love others more. Merry Christmas!