Dr. Janet Linton was upstairs at the Belleville Animal Clinic, sedating Buddy the beagle for surgery. He had severe glaucoma.
“We’ll be doing an enucleation,” she said. It was the technical term for removing an eye. “Pressure builds up (from glaucoma) and causes a lot of pain.”
Minus an eye, a recovered Buddy would be pain-free and see just fine with one, she added.
Operating nearby was Dr. Kayley Rodriguez, who had a German shepherd mix on her table, a breathing tube snaking out of his mouth. He would be neutered.
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“Ah, he’s got fleas,” she said, reaching for wipes to clean the fur.
Downstairs, Dr. Ellen Burk was examining Coty, an 11-year-old Shih Tzu owned by Wilma Hendrick, of Belleville. He had been brought in for allergy problems, but the doctor noticed a tumor on a rear leg.
“I don’t think it’s cancer,” Ellen said. “Have you noticed, has it gotten bigger?”
That’s why working with a group of women is so helpful. There’s that support and a shoulder to lean on.
Dr. Ellen Burk
Wilma said yes, a bit bigger over time, and perhaps it was a little darker.
The doctor suggested having it removed and possibly biopsied.
The only veterinarian not working that day was Dr. Heidi Hemmett, of Belleville, who was on vacation.
Dogs barked. Cages rattled. A cat mewled in his crate, anxious to go home as the owner paid his bill. A typical day at the clinic, said Cheryl Yarber, clinic administrator.
Four women in veterinary practice together is not unusual considering a growing trend in the U.S. In 1960, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 98 percent of veterinarians were men. By 2013, of the nation’s 99,720 practicing veterinarians, 55 percent were women, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“It was 50 percent in my graduating class,” said Ellen, who lives in Red Bud and graduated in 1989 from the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine. “Now, I think it’s 90 to 95 percent.”
Janet, 47, and Ellen, 52, are the veterans at the clinic, which Janet owns. She lives in Belleville and has been there since 1998. She bought the practice in 2008 from retiring Drs. Steve Loyet and Charles Hertich. Dr. Tom Amlung started the practice in 1971. Ellen has been there since 1996.
Kayley, 26, originally from Quincy, lives in St. Louis and is the newbie who started at the clinic last spring, not long after graduating from veterinary school at the University of Illinois. It takes four years beyond an undergraduate degree to become a veterinarian.
Heidi, 37, came to Belleville in June from Massachusetts, after her spouse was relocated to Scott Air Force Base. In practice seven years, Heidi is a part-time “relief” veterinarian at the clinic. She also works in St. Louis and has her own veterinary acupuncture practice.
“I believe in the combined approach” of using medicine and acupuncture together, she said.
Ellen said the four of them are like “family practitioners.” Serious and more complicated procedures are usually referred to specialists, which is itself a relatively new focus for veterinarians.
She said helping heal and keep small animals healthy has changed dramatically over the decades, taking equipment, techniques and procedures used in human medicine and putting them to work with animals.
“Now, there’s ultrasound, laser therapy, digital X-ray, dental health,” Ellen said. “Dogs can have total hip replacement.”
“And pain management,” said Janet, adding that drugs for pets have increased so much that the clinic’s pharmaceutical reference book, once just about an inch thick, is now several times that size.
Even something as simple as flea medication has made great leaps.
“When I started, there was no long-term flea product,” Janet said. “I think that changed when animals graduated from not being in the house to in the house — and then in the bed.”
Veterinarians face issues doctors who treat people don’t have.
In July, Janet got part of her left thumb bitten off by a dog everyone thought was well-sedated and secured.
“Yeah, it was a big deal,” said Janet, who nonetheless smiled. “It took seven weeks to recover” and included taking a graft from her arm to help form new tissue on the thumb.
Animals can’t tell a doctor where it hurts.
“It’s like a mystery sometimes,” said Janet. “That’s why we consult each other all the time.”
Veterinarians have to end lives. Ellen pointed out that they suffer higher rates of suicide and depression than many other professions.
Having to euthanize an elderly, sick or injured animal is hard to do emotionally, she said. “We see that puppy we’ve known for 16 years and then have to put it to sleep. It effects all of us.”
Cheryl, the clinic administrator, said it’s a hard reality.
“Clients tend to forget that Mother Nature doesn’t let pets live as long as humans.”
To ease the process somewhat, the clinic has a special Quiet Room where “pet parents” can be with their pets during the procedure.
“That’s why working with a group of women is so helpful,” Ellen said. “There’s that support and a shoulder to lean on.”
The doctors often care for an animal throughout its life.
“This is the only place I’ve brought him,” Coty’s owner Wilma, said. “I’d worry myself sick if anything happened to him. I highly recommend them.”
Veterinarians find their calling in different ways.
“I was a sophomore in college and working with marine mammals,” said Kayley, who was studying marine biology in Maine at the time. “I saw the vet caring for seals and, I guess it was always in the back of my mind.” Her sister is a veterinarian as well.
Ellen was in grade school when she knew.
“I remember working on an essay in fifth grade and I wrote that I wanted to be a vet someday,” she said. “I always had dogs and cats — and a squirrel for a while.”
And among the serious and mundane, there have funny moments on the job.
“I had a lady bring in a two-gallon plastic bag (with water in it) with her frog in it,” said Janet.
Seems the owner put a plastic catfish in the frog’s aquarium for decoration, but the frog thought only one thing: food.
“The catfish was stuck in its mouth.”
She successfully removed it.