Just how far can you stretch a dollar?

Just how far can you stretch a dollar?

Mar 01, 2001

Mr. Dollar had absolutely no intention of skimping on anything as important as the health of his pet.

"Bottom is the best dog I've ever had, Doc," he said. "Let's get this problem figured out. Run any tests or take any X-rays that you think you need. I don't care about the cost. Bottom is my best friend. Money is no object."

On the surface, this may appear to be an ideal situation. However, any experienced veterinarian knows that the client who professes to be a big spender is the same client who demands a half-hour explanation of the charges after the pooch was admitted to the hospital. I made a mental note to itemize and justify all the charges carefully, then moved on to my next office call. It was Mrs. Frugal with her cat, Budget. This was their first visit to my office.

"Doctor, I hope you can help us. Budget is very sick, but I just can't afford a lot of high vet bills."

I examined the cat and explained the tests and treatments that I thought were indicated. Unfortunately, further discussion revealed that she had no money whatsoever with which to help her cat. I wound up offering to provide basic medical treatment for free.

"Oh, thank you, doctor," she said. "I'm so glad we came to you. By the way, you'll probably want to update him on his vaccines while he's here. Also I'll be very anxious to hear about his blood test results, especially the ones for leukemia and FIV. Please keep him with you until you're sure he's well. Then, when he comes home, I'll need copies of his records, including X-rays and tests, so that my regular vet can keep them on file."

I wasn't a bit surprised. I've been in practice too long. So, I gave her a quick lecture on the limits of free treatment, sent her home and went to answer a waiting phone call. It was Al Paloosa calling about a problem with his barn cats.

"You know, doctor," he said. "The stables where I keep my show horses have a lot of cats. They always seem to be breeding. If I can catch them one at a time and bring them over to you, can you spay them or neuter them or whatever you call it? I know that you vets are concerned about animal overpopulation. Do you ever do things like this for free, just for the good of the animals? After all, they're not actually my cats. They're just strays."

I told him to check into the low cost programs that are available through the local animal shelter. I also suggested that he might send away for reduced cost certificates which are available from the Friends of Gonad Removal organization. These are just two of the many national and local charities in which my clinic participates. When these are added to the list of individual clients for whom we reduce our rates based on need, my clinic comes out second to none in the bleeding heart department. None-the-less, there is a point where we have to draw the line. With the conclusion of his call, I found that I had reached another milestone in my life. I had made it through another day.

Unfortunately, I couldn't head straight for home. I had an appointment to see my own physician, Dr. Armand A. Leg. He had been treating me for a back injury and insisted that I come in for regular rechecks. His average office call lasts about 37 seconds. It consists of a handshake, a comment about his dog, and a casual "how are you this week?" For this I pay about a dollar a second.

Armand drives a new Jaguar. Each year the Allentown Chapter of the Daughters of American Wealth hold their Historic Home Tour. His mansion is featured. The most recent visit to him lasted longer than most because he wanted to ask me a few things about his new kittens.

As I drove home, I couldn't help but wonder how much I paid to sit there and answer his questions. The thought didn't bother me, though, because I was going to get a chance to recoup a little of my losses. Those new kittens were going to need shots, leukemia tests and spaying. It was all going to happen soon, too, because Dr. and Mrs. Leg had an appointment to see me the next day.

I got to my house just in time to answer a call on the home phone from Mrs. Full.

"Doctor, this is Faith Full calling about my dog. He just hasn't been himself all day long. I think he needs to be seen tonight, but your answering service said that I'd have to take him to the emergency clinic. I can't do that. You're the only veterinarian that we can trust. Can't you come out to your office and see him? I called the emergency clinic but they'll charge me a night fee if I go there and they expect to be paid tonight. Can you believe that? They take credit cards, but then I might have to pay some interest. If you'd see us, I figure I could charge it."

I turned her down.

The next morning I headed for the office looking forward to seeing the Leg's new kittens. I would have a new client who didn't nitpick over nickels. Even better, I would get a tiny portion of my orthopedic investment back. It would be a good old-fashioned office call where my advice would be accepted, followed and even paid for.

I was wrong.

As it turned out, the Legs didn't really believe in giving shots to cats because, as Mrs. Leg explained, "When I was a kid we had cats and they never got shots. They never got sick either. We just want to get the free exam that we are entitled to because of adopting the kittens from the shelter. And, of course, we'll want to schedule them for spaying as soon as our low-cost certificates arrive from the Friends of Gonad Removal Organization."

Dr. Obenski owns the Allentown Clinic for Cats in Allentown, Pa.