THE DOCTOR IS IN
By ANDREW MCGINN
The name of Jefferson’s newest veterinary practice, Companion Veterinary Clinic, pretty much says everything you need to know.
Dr. Christy Fields no longer has anything left to prove.
The first time following her 2004 graduation from Iowa State University that she was called out to put a cow’s uterus back in — hey, it happens — the farmer was visibly skeptical of the young gal he saw approaching.
“They do not accept a little girl showing up,” Fields, now 42, recalled. “He was very disappointed to see me get out of the truck.”
Fields responded by lifting the uterus off the ground — all 60 pounds of it — getting it back in and stretching it back out like the most seasoned country vet.
The truth is, as of 2018, women represented 61.7 percent of all veterinarians, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), an increase from 2008, when men made up half the nation’s animal doctors.
But only 29.3 percent of female veterinarians owned a practice as of 2018, AVMA says.
Fields is doing her part to shrink that disparity with the opening this week of her own small-animal clinic in a familiar location: the building south of the Square that has been the site of veterinary practices for generations.
The building was vacated when Dr. Mark Peters moved the Jefferson Veterinary Clinic to a 1.7-acre site along Highway 30 following the retirement of his longtime business partner, Scott Sievers. Sievers, in turn, had bought the practice from John Wand and Robert Telleen.
In the two and a half years since moving to Greene County from eastern Iowa, Fields — whose husband, Bill, is a Paton native who heeded the call to come home following the tragic 2017 death of brother Pat — began to see an opening in the market locally for a practice dedicated solely to companion animals.
Then again, the definition of “companion animal” these days is pretty loose.
Fields, who also works part-time at the veterinary clinic in Lake City, can admittedly spay and neuter rabbits. She’s twice removed a tumor from South Central Calhoun High School’s rat.
“I’ve also sutured up a chicken,” she said.
But she drew the line at working on a pot-bellied pig, saying, “I don’t do pigs. They just stink.”
Fields still vividly remembers working with hogs in vet school — she couldn’t get the smell out of her hair for a week.
“I’m not a big fan of pigs,” she said.
Yeah. You’re right.
She’s not from around here.
“I was the farm girl who was born in the city,” Fields explained.
Fields was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, a region more synonymous with factories than farms. Her dad and his brothers all worked at the same sheet metal factory their dad did.
As a girl, Fields could often be found trying to bring mice pried from the cat’s mouth back to life.
“That was always my thing,” she said.
Even still, her dad encouraged her to follow the money and become a doctor of people, not pets. Fields instead made her way west following undergraduate studies in Michigan to attend the nation’s first public veterinary school at Iowa State.
“I’m not going to get rich doing this,” she said, “but I love my job.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The decision to open her own practice wasn’t an easy one to make — and, statistically, Fields is going against the grain.
Among all veterinarians ages 40-49, ownership is down to 27.5 percent from 43.8 percent, according to a census of vets by AVMA.
“I was a little sticker-shocked when I started buying equipment,” Fields confessed, adding that medical equipment is the same for people and pets alike.
However, what makes veterinary medicine such a risky endeavor anymore is that procedures cost far less for animals than for people. (It may not seem like it when you get hit with an unexpected $150 vet bill, but, seriously, ask the lab at the Greene County Medical Center next time to check your poop for roundworms for 5 bucks.)
“People have a very skewed vision of what my life is like,” she said.
As a veterinarian, Fields is a general practitioner, surgeon, radiologist, anesthesiologist, dentist, pharmacist and physical therapist all in one.
Not surprisingly, then, the industry has been left wide open for corporations to enter the fray. What historically had been an entrepreneurial industry, according to AVMA, has seen large corporations, private equity investment firms and others totally reshape the competitive landscape in recent years.
Mars Inc. — the multinational maker of M&M’s, Skittles and Whiskas cat food — has bought scores of vet clinics since the ’90s and now employs 85,000 “petcare associates.” Walmart is also getting into the game with in-store veterinary clinics and claims of prices 40-60 percent lower than “typical” prices.
Fields said that, for years, local veterinary practices made money on pet products, but it’s now difficult to compete with online retailers like Chewy.com and corporate pharmacies.
Fields worked for 12 years in Davenport at a practice that eventually was sold to a corporation. She spent eight of those 12 years as the managing DVM — and, while that particular corporation was relatively hands off (as long as the clinic turned a profit), she’s heard of corporate owners telling veterinarians how to practice medicine.
“The guarantee of this being my retirement is not there like it used to be,” Fields said, sitting in the waiting area of her renovated building. “There’s a good chance no one will buy this practice when I’m ready to retire.”
Not to worry — Fields is settling into her new practice for the long haul.
“I’m going to do this until I’m 80,” Fields vowed. “I’m going to be one of those people that they say, ‘She should have retired a long time ago.’ Actually, I’ve worked for a couple of those.”