Creature Comfort

Tales from the other University of Minnesota hospital

"If I can get away with $500 a month for rent plus no car expenses, I could get away with earning in the low 40s," Roberts says, explaining that this automatically rules out any possibility she could work, for example, with horses: Salaries for equine vets start in the mid-20s. Agribusiness pays $40,000 or more for cow and pig vets, but she's not interested in working with "food animals," as they're sometimes referred to here. Nor, with an average starting salary of $36,000 a year, is the prototypical neighborhood small-animal clinic an option. (The financial picture is even dimmer for veterinary technicians: Their two years of school cost anywhere from $6,500 to $20,000, while salaries start at just $7.50 an hour.)

There are workshops, Web sites, and software packages designed just to help future animal-health professionals figure all of this out. Roberts has run the numbers repeatedly, applied formulas that adjust the numbers by geographic region and specialty, and concluded that the best compromise between her passions and her pocketbook lies in the emerging specialty of critical and emergency care. After graduation, she hopes to land an internship with one of the animal emergency rooms springing up nationwide. The internship would last only one year--not four, like the residencies needed for many specialties, such as surgery. Roberts figures she can put off her payments for that long.

Despite the dismal numbers, veterinary medicine consistently attracts top students. Almost 1,200 people applied for admission to the UM's veterinary college in the fall of 1998. Just 76 were accepted, 61 of them residents of Minnesota, the Dakotas, or Manitoba. Most pulled straight A's as undergrads.

Vet college dean Klausner says about 40 percent of the program's graduates go to work for a private small-animal clinic. Another 30 percent treat both small and large animals, while 20 percent of graduates end up working only with large animals. The remainder go on for some kind of specialized training. Only a few pursue careers in research, agribusiness, or industry, says Klausner--even though that's where the highest entry-level salaries are.

Even those who can afford to pursue a hot specialty are light-years from even dreaming about the prestige and wealth enjoyed by, say, a human cardiologist or neurosurgeon. One of the surgeons here, Dr. Tom Bowersox, slogged his way through a residency and then opened a specialty clinic in a Twin Cities suburb. He sent out a letter announcing he was accepting referrals of ACL cases and other sophisticated operations. He had four-legged patients lined up from day one and figures that in 10 years he did 2,500 ACL repairs. He ended up giving up the business, however, when it became too big to handle by himself.

As a surgeon at the UM, he's in about the same financial spot he was running the clinic. "When I get my Porsche, the license plate's gonna read ACL," he quips. The other surgeons within earshot crack up: "That's that Matchbox Porsche you're been dreaming about, right?"

 

At one end of the hospital's treatment room--the place where most nonsurgical procedures are carried out--someone has laid a small orange cat on a stainless steel table. At first glance, there doesn't appear to be anything unusual about the motionless form. Many of the animals awaiting attention here are similarly still under the influence of narcotics or anesthesia. Veterinarians and technicians stroke the tabby as they pass, some stopping long enough to scratch behind a limp ear.

It isn't until one of the technicians attending the cat lays a plastic bag on the stainless steel table that it becomes clear this animal is dead. A cancer in its bladder had gone too far, the tech explains, and spots had begun to show up on its lungs. No one needed to mention this when the animal was brought into the big room; when a patient doesn't make it here, word gets around with lightning speed.

Euthanasia is possibly the most grueling of the tasks faced by the hospital staff, says Klausner. "This is a hard practice. It isn't like most, with happy, healthy puppies and kittens and shots. We're the end of the line. Even if there are specialty practices out there, we're still going to be the court of last resort."

All UM veterinary students take an ethics class to learn how to deal with the dilemmas of high-tech care. "We teach our students to think in terms of options. People choose different options, maybe because of finances, maybe because of their bond with their animal." And at every stage of every encounter, he says, pet owners want to know whether their animal will suffer. "If the answer is yes, they're going to say, 'No, I don't want that for my cat or dog.'"

When a family decides to have its pet put to sleep here, doctors will ask them if they want to be present. If they do, the procedure is carried out in a special area where people can spend as much time as they want without worrying about making room for the next appointment. Owners are given information about support groups and literature on grief, as well as a choice between mass cremation and getting their pet's remains back in a mortuary urn.

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