As a sole practitioner with a well-established small animal practice in Santa Rosa, California, Racelle LaMar, never imagined her clinic, Northtown Animal Hospital, would be ravaged by wildfires. Since the Santa Rosa wildfires, she and her team have worked tirelessly to provide continuity of care for their clients and their pets. One year later, Dr. LaMar shares her lessons learned in owning and operating a veterinary clinic in times of natural disaster.
What drew you to veterinary medicine?
In 1979, when I was a college senior studying mechanical engineering, I realized that the companies I was interviewing with were just hiring a woman to meet a quota. They were really hoping women would make coffee and stay out of the way of the real engineers. I thought, wait a minute—I’ve invested four years into my education and that’s not what I’m expecting.
I wasn’t enthused about engineering, but veterinary medicine excited me. I had grown up with beef cattle, helping my grandfather raise them and I spent some time in the Small Animal Hospital at Texas A&M. I was very lucky the prerequisites only required two very strenuous summer sessions. I got permission to take nine hours per semester instead of six, and then I was able to apply to the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and received my Bachelor of Science in animal science.
Now, here I am, all these years later, and I don’t always want to go to work, but I have always loved what I do!
Do you have any special areas of interest in clinical practice?
Originally, I thought about concentrating on large animals because I had helped my grandfather, but it’s hard on the (human) body!
I started out in the early 1980s in emergency medicine. Then, 14 years after graduation and just when I’d bought a two-seater sports car, my son came along. Man plans, God laughs.
Emergency medicine as a new mother, with a husband who also worked full time, wasn’t easy. I got out of emergency medicine, became a part-time vet, and eventually bought the Northtown Animal Hospital. It’s a small animal clinic. I do a lot of dental work and my current associate does muscular skeleton manipulation. It’s like chiropractic, but for animals. I enjoy the dental work and I feel it’s an overlooked area of small animal health. But, my main focus is preventive medicine.
What inspired your decision to purchase the clinic?
I had thought about purchasing a practice or building one, but it was never the right fit.
Northtown Animal Hospital seemed like the right fit. I had also recently completed treatment for an aggressive form of breast cancer and thought, if not now, when?
What’s your focus right now?
Rebuilding. A year ago, my practice burned in the Santa Rosa wildfires. The community lost over 6,000 buildings. My clients lost homes, pets, and people. I have spent this last year focused on providing quality care for our clients. We’ve had to be inventive.
In the early days, it meant house calls and running my practice from my dining room table. These days, it’s making sure every client is well taken care of—even in a new place, with a new face at the front desk! We have been able to merge with another solo practitioner, Dr. Muller, so right now my staff and Dr. Muller’s Guardian Pet Hospital team are all crammed into 1,000-square feet! Luckily, we have an additional 500-square feet being built, so we’ll have more room soon. Our new practice will be known as the Northtown Guardian Vet Hospital and I will be the onsite owner and practitioner.
The rebuild at the burned practice site is my other area of focus. I’ve been able to partner with an investment group to do this. It was quite a journey the way the partnership came to be. The group, Curo Pet Care, approached me through a friend and colleague. They mainly wanted to know how they could help after the fire. It was a tough time and I lacked knowledge of how to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. I was also a bit shocked and dazed—unsure of what to do. Over time, Curo, with no expectations, helped me look at temporary sites, leases, and then offered me one day a week at one of their practices. After months of working together, I decided to partner with them.
In overcoming so much adversity this year, what do you consider a courageous veterinarian?
Any veterinarian who shows up every day is pretty courageous!
The fire challenged us quite a bit! My staff was just as brave for putting up with me. But truly: any vet who shows up, puts up with the stress, staffing challenges, and euthanasia is courageous! Our work is all about pushing yourself outside your comfort zone and constant learning. We forget about the routine day-in-day-out and give our hearts to each of our clients and patients. It takes a lot.
Any memorable patients that stick out from the day to day for you?
Oh, there’s no end to the stories you can tell about dogs and the foreign bodies they’ll eat! Socks, underwear, and corn cobs. I’ve seen it all!
One time, I received a 2 a.m. phone call from someone who’d found a kitten. They were panicked—there were no pet stores open—what should they feed it? I’d recommended a simple solution of Karo (corn) syrup, egg yolk, and cow’s milk. They yelled, “Where am I supposed to get cow’s milk?” (cue laughter) I don’t know, 7-Eleven?
Recently, I saw a little Shih Tzu who was just so full of himself. I offered him a treat. He promptly dropped it and peed on it. That’s what he thought of that.
On occasion when I recommend dental work for a patient and their owners aren’t convinced, I really enjoy seeing how much of a difference it makes to the dog’s well-being and personality when I’ve removed an abscessed tooth!
What’s next for you?
As we recover from the fire, I’m keeping up with dental advancements and looking to expand my expertise in ultrasound. It’s been a long recovery process and my team has been impacted a lot. Unfortunately, I have lost some staff along the way, which I’m not proud of. The stress of the situation really got to me, but the ones that have remained have been able to adapt and persevere. We set up our database on my kitchen table, did house calls, and had an outpatient clinic four mornings a week at an amazing local boarding and training facility. I owe a lot to my team, they held it together and pointed me in the right direction on a day to day basis. We’ve come through this together and we’ll continue to do so!