While attending the 2015 Blogpaws conference, I was intrigued by one company’s booth in the vendor area of the conference. Helping Hands is a veterinary practice in Richmond, VA, that offers affordable veterinary surgery and dental care and helps prevent “economic euthanasia.” This hit a chord with me, since there have been times when I wondered if I could really afford a procedure I was needing for one of my cats. I wanted to find out more about how such a practice functioned and whether it had made a difference in the lives of animals and their guardians.
Veterinarian Lori Pasternak came from a family of doctors, and her love of animals led her to the veterinary profession. She found herself drawn to surgery and dentistry. The idea to create Helping Hands came when Dr. Pasternak worked as a full service vet and worked additional weekends at a low cost spay/neuter clinic. “I used to dream of a job where I could do nothing but surgery all day, but spay/neuter did not satisfy me enough. I like the more advanced procedures.”
On her way home from the spay/neuter clinic one day, a lightbulb went off, and she realized she could open a hospital that “functions like a high volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic, but offers advanced procedures that I enjoy.” She added the idea of offering dental services because she had seen so many pet owners forego these procedures because they didn’t feel they could afford them. “Not all pets need surgery, but they all need dental care.”
To Pasternak’s knowledge, until a few months ago, no one else in the U.S. was offering such services; however, she has heard that the idea is catching on. The Helping Hands website lists all procedures and fees. Customers know upfront what a procedure will cost, so there are no surprises. Helping Hands is able to save two to three animals per day from euthanasia. In other words, these animals would have died without needed surgeries. “The other animals who come to us for other surgeries and dentals probably would not die that day without us, but they by far have a much better quality of life when they leave.”
I was curious about how such a business can afford to function, but Helping Hands has a creative approach so that all customers can be served. Helping Hands is a for-profit business and cannot fundraise. However, every person who uses Helping Hands’ services “donates” $5, which is built in to the cost of each procedure via the Good Citizen Account. This account is used to help Helping Hands cover costs when they help a pet in a life threatening situation in which the owners have exhausted all means to be able to pay the fee.
“We make owners jump through a few hoops, and they have to be kind to us, but if we deem them kind and unable to pay, we can decide to allow them to perform community service as a form of payment,” says Pasternak. Owners have to volunteer one hour at any animal related rescue or humane organization for every $10 they use out of this account. Says Pasternak, “We call this our Merry-Go-Round of Kindness. The community has provided the money, we volunteer our time, and the recipient donates their time back to the community.”
Helping Hands lowers overhead costs by limiting services to only surgery and dental care; they also do not offer office visits or consultations, which cuts down on time and fees normally passed on to clients. All services are outpatient, which cuts out hospitalization fees. Pasternak says, “I know it sounds crazy to perform major abdominal surgery and send the pet home, but we do it every day and it works well. Parents make incredible nurses and most owners would prefer to have their pets at home even if finances were not a concern.”
Owners can take their pets to one of several 24 hour emergency centers for overnight care if they are not comfortable taking their pet home, but many of Helping Hands’ clients cannot afford that option. And, Pasternak stresses that standards are high, and a full staff of dedicated, pet-loving, fully licensed people offer high quality and affordable care. “We are a mission-driven hospital that exists to make a difference, not a large profit. We like to think we are living proof that you can do well by doing good.”
Helping Hands does not, and will not ever, offer diagnostics, consultations, wellness care, or hospitalization. And Pasternak explains that “part of our strategy to gain the trust of veterinarians is to not compete with them. We are a tool for them, not the competition.” Helping Hands “helps the owners get through the most expensive part, the surgery itself, with hopefully enough money to continue to care for their pet back at their regular full service veterinarian.”
Dr. Pasternak explains that if a client cannot afford their vet’s fees for surgery, then that vet has three options: 1) Do it for what they can afford, 2) send the customer out the door with no care, or 3) send the customer to Helping Hands. If the vet chooses option one, that’s terrific. If they choose option two, then either the owners will find another full service vet to help them, or the pet dies. Either way, the original veterinarian just lost a client and a patient. If the vet sends the customer to Helping Hands, that vet will get back a live and well patient that she can continue to treat, and she will also retain a loyal and very happy client who was given a livable, affordable option.
“It is a win-win-win situation, and veterinarians love having a good option to give their owners. Most vets hate to have their hands tied when an owner cannot afford care and are appreciative of the work we do for their clients.”
What does Pasternak love most about this endeavor? “The best part is getting to be true hero every day and spending my days doing what I love. I have the best job!”
The most challenging part of it? “Running the business side. I have a lot of help from the right people, but I never truly understood what it took to run, market, and manage a business. That part is necessary, but not much fun for me. Saving lives is fun!”
To find out more about Helping Hands and the services they offer, visit the website at helpinghandsvetva.com.
All photos courtesy of Helping Hands and Dr. Lori Pasternak.
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About Catherine Holm: Cat Holm is the author of The Great Purr, the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, and a contributor to Rescued: The Stories of 12 Cats, Through Their Eyes. She’s also a yoga instructor. Cat love living in nature and being outside every day, even in winter. She is mom to six adorable cats, all of them rescues.