Preparing for the Unexpected
April Norris Marklin, DVM
Life is unpredictable. It’s better to have your bases covered should you encounter a serious life change — especially if you own a veterinary practice.
“You have a mass.” Separately, those four small words seem innocuous; together, they altered the course of my life.
I was the owner of a successful small animal practice in North Carolina, and cancer was not in my plan. I’d never even missed a day of work until the abdominal pain became so severe that I could no longer focus. After seven hours in the emergency room, a doctor told me, “You have a mass on your ovary and one on your kidney, which is most likely an adenocarcinoma.”
Sometimes it’s a gift to have the knowledge of a veterinarian. At other times — like in that moment — it can be a curse. My husband didn’t understand the diagnosis, so I told him, “I have about a year to live.”
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At the risk of sounding bleak, are you prepared — both personally and professionally — for a life-altering event? I wasn’t.
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
What would happen at your hospital if you were suddenly unable to be there? No one wants to leave their business in the lurch, but you just never know what tomorrow might bring. So get prepared now.
Start by creating a list of your responsibilities. Add in descriptions of each duty, instructions for how they should be completed and the locations of relevant documents. You may decide training is necessary for particularly intricate tasks.
Making this list can be difficult, and finding someone you trust to handle each item daunting, but it must be done. I was fortunate to have two terrific associates who kept everything running while I was off from work, but what if you are a sole practitioner?
Payroll and Bills
I did my own payroll for 20 employees on QuickBooks. I trained my lead associate veterinarian on the process and created a folder with step-by-step instructions. My spouse was authorized to sign payroll checks on my business account, and my accountant could pay bills through my online account. An emergency list with account numbers and passwords was locked in my desk, which my spouse and lead associate could access.
Inventory and Hospital Repairs
My lead associate and receptionist learned to oversee drug ordering. I felt it was important to cross-train my staff so they would understand the importance of pulling order tags, checking expiration dates and keeping medications stocked.
We kept a list of the repair companies we used for heating/air, electrical and plumbing. The staff could also contact my spouse for advice on how to handle issues as they arose.
Employees and Scheduling
I gave my associate veterinarians the authority to discipline staff. The lead associate and lead staff member in each section of the hospital could adjust work schedules as needed during my absence.
I had my lawyer draft a traditional will and a living will. It’s also important to prepare a power of attorney in case you are unable to make decisions.
At some point, I realized that the hospital wouldn’t stop functioning when I was gone. My staff felt empowered to show me that they could handle the day-to-day responsibilities. But now the big question: What if the business needed to be sold? Who would handle that?
For starters, I put a provision in my lead associate’s contract that she would receive first right of refusal on buying the business. If she was not interested, it would be listed on the market, and my spouse would use a brokering firm to handle the sale while my staff continued to run the hospital.
It’s impossible to prepare for every scenario, but it would be ideal to create a folder of instructions labeled “in case I die” that is reviewed on an annual basis. As morbid as it may seem, I wanted to have as much information as possible documented in order to relieve stress for my spouse, family and staff so that the business could continue to be successful. I know of several practices with just one veterinarian that had to close their doors in the face of a similar situation, and that was not what I wanted for my own family, staff or clientele.
MY STORY CONTINUES
I was one of the lucky ones. On my third visit to the hospital that weekend, my CT scan was reread by another doctor, who determined that a degenerating fibroid in my uterus — not an ovarian tumor — was causing the pain. After 10 hours of surgery to remove my kidney, I was considered cured. My pathology was a grade 1 renal adenocarcinoma with clear margins and no lymph node involvement. I never imagined that I’d be grateful for severe uterine pain, but if not for that, the renal cancer would never have been found in its early stages.
Even with a healthy prognosis, I never fully returned to my practice after that first hospital visit. Ultimately, I decided to sell my business and move closer to my extended family in Tennessee. At 52, I’m semiretired and work as a relief veterinarian, which allows me to continue practicing in a field I love while also enjoying life to the fullest — every single minute of it!
Dr. Marklin received her DVM from University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 1989. She practiced as a small animal associate in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina and a business owner for 13 years in North Carolina. She is now semi-retired and working as a relief veterinarian in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee and writing freelance veterinary themed articles.