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Tulsa Tough

Marina Animal Clinic is a high-volume, no-appointment-necessary urban hospital that attracts a broad range of clients and many sad cases. The practice manager’s steady hand keeps the staff focused.

Tulsa Tough
Team members tend to multiple patients inside Marina Animal Clinic’s crowded treatment room.

A friend of mine once observed, “Marina’s like a MASH unit for vets, isn’t it?” There’s truth in that. A typical day might, and recently did, go like this:

Two women on a road trip across Oklahoma watch in horror as a 75-pound pit bull mix is tossed off a highway overpass. They gather him up and find their way to Marina Animal Clinic, one block east of Interstate 44 in a rough section of east Tulsa. Waiting patiently upfront, the two heroines quietly digest the news that the dog’s back is broken. They agree to pay for his treatment and euthanasia.

Glancing into a surgery room, I see a colleague wielding bolt cutters to extract twisted metal from the hind leg of a cat that had jumped onto a wine rack, toppling it. The surgeon’s notes state: “The owner had to contact the fire department to get the cat out of the rack; still has a piece around the leg.”

The door swings open to reveal a newly neutered kitten hemorrhaging from his scrotum less than an hour after his adoption. The owner couldn’t reach the adoption agency, but minutes later, a Marina team member gets through and is told to have the client return the cat. A veterinary surgeon will be waiting.

Some Things Never Change

Fresh out of veterinary school, I started at Marina Animal Clinic in 2000, stayed four years and returned in 2019. The clientele didn’t change much over two decades. For example:

  • Pet owners are as likely to show up in a sputtering Honda Civic as a late-model BMW.
  • Having little disposable income, many clients can only hope that their financing applications will be approved.
  • A sizable number of pet owners speak only Spanish, requiring practice manager Mariann Ostapowich Haggerty to schedule at least one bilingual employee on every shift.

Marina, which takes its name not from a nearby harbor but from an adjacent housing complex now called the Shoreline Apartments, is three things in one:

  • A boot camp for new veterinary college graduates.
  • An endurance challenge for seasoned veterinarians.
  • A place where hope springs eternal for clients and pets of all descriptions.

The clinic is walk-in only — no appointments. The lobby tends to burst at the seams. Once checked in, clients wait to be called, in order, to one of three exam rooms. Emergency cases bypass the line and are whisked to an expansive treatment room surrounded by floor-to-ceiling animal cages.

“With our high volume, we don’t have to charge as much, but we still have a high standard of care,” Mariann said.

‘Magic and Honesty’

Back in 2000, working on a 10-member team, I clung to the coattails of my senior colleagues as I battled impostor syndrome. While Marina’s earthy style contrasted with the upper crust of Tulsa’s veterinary community, there was magic and honesty in the medicine we practiced.

I feasted at a smorgasbord of veterinary experience, from surgery and bulldog medicine to artificial insemination and emergency work. If I got into trouble, be it a stubborn bleeding vessel in surgery or performing euthanasia, my colleagues and the practice’s then-owner, George Haggerty, DVM, had my back. Some of my best friendships were born of Marina’s intense, drama-ridden culture.

Dr. Haggerty, who married Mariann in 2003, was a gifted orthopedic surgeon renowned for his beautiful canine ear crops. He was the willing teacher of countless newly graduated veterinarians. He died in 2018 at age 71, leaving the hospital in Mariann’s hands.

“He was like everybody’s dad. He mentored all of us,” said senior veterinarian Susan Christian, DVM, who joined the clinic in 1994.

Through the years, case after incredible case came through Marina’s doors. A surprising number that seemed hopeless at first emerged victorious, such as the Boston terrier that presented with a bamboo stalk lodged through his chest after an overeager romp with a squirrel.

“Somehow the bamboo missed all the major organs,” Mariann recalled. “Doc took it immediately to surgery and removed the bamboo, and the dog made a complete recovery.”

On another occasion, a German shepherd’s trespass into unfriendly territory earned the dog an arrow buried deep in its shoulder.

“It was an expensive arrow, too. Someone meant to do some damage with that,” Mariann said.

One of her favorite stories is that of Deuce, a pit bull brought in with a large, edematous wound that covered much of his right cheek and jaw. The treating veterinarian located a .22-caliber bullet embedded in the mandible. Deuce also had heartworms. The client never returned for Deuce, but he recovered and was adopted by a staff member.

Heather Potter, RVT, the senior technician and assistant practice manager, arrived as a veterinary assistant in 1995. At the time, Marina did not employ licensed technicians.

“In 1997, [co-owner Dr. Jimmie] Baldwin and Dr. Haggerty decided to train several of us as techs,” Potter said. “We would go to the library every week to have class, and then we would have on-the-job training. They bought the books from Tulsa Community College, which had just started its vet tech program.”

When Dr. Haggerty bought out Dr. Baldwin’s share in 1998, “Things started changing pretty drastically,” Potter said.

Instead of closing at midnight, Marina is now open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday. Nine of the 39 employees are veterinarians.

From my departure in 2004 until my return in 2019, Marina Animal Clinic underwent a gradual transformation from farm club to the major leagues. A digital radiograph unit replaced an outdated one. The University of Oklahoma medical clinic vacated adjacent office space, enabling Marina to expand a surgery suite, go from a coveted single lavatory to three restrooms, construct a conference room, ultrasound room and dental suite, and build a fully equipped laboratory.

A Little Bit of Everything

To work here is to multitask. One minute I am trying to figure out why a 4-month-old goldendoodle, again vomiting and lethargic, is back for the third time in two months, and in the next minute, I am awaiting bloodwork results from a fully vaccinated kitten that has a papillae-studded eyelid lesion, an off-color right iris and an oral ulcer.

As I ponder my patients, the back entrance to the treatment area opens for team members bearing a Saint Bernard on a stretcher. The dog has an acute loss of limb control.

Thinking outside the box is a skill perfected by Marina veterinarians. The job is hard when you know what a pet needs but the recommended care doesn’t match what the client can afford.

Scooby, a pitbull bulldog mix owned by a construction worker who lives in a motel, presented with bloody diarrhea and vomiting. When his parvovirus test was negative and the only thing his owner could tell me was that Scooby had eaten a McDonald’s cheeseburger, I made a direct fecal smear and found hookworm eggs. Problem was, Scooby’s vomiting and bloody diarrhea erupted anew pending diagnosis and his owner had spent his limit on the exam and parvovirus test. Hospitalization and supportive care were not an option. Now it was up to me.

Anti-nausea injection? Could not afford it. Dewormer? The dog would probably vomit the medication. The client said he had no more money until the next day, but I knew he might not return.

Reluctantly, I gave Scooby an ivermectin injection to kill hookworms, knowing the dog could be heartworm-positive and therefore at risk of a reaction, and I instructed the client to return the next day for further treatment. Instead of sending home a prescription antibiotic for GI infection and anti-diarrhea medication, I told the owner to buy Imodium tablets over the counter and recommended that Scooby be fed chicken and rice and Pedialyte.

Who knew if the client would come back? (He didn’t.) But you still have to think of the patient.

When Dogs Attack

When Dr. Christian is asked to recall some of the wildest cases she has seen, the senior veterinarian’s response is, “You mean this week?”

Cases of dogs attacked by dogs are legion. They are always worse than meets the eye, and these patients often don’t make it. A memorable survivor is Cinnamon, a medium-sized, red retriever mix who required two lengthy surgeries and aftercare that stretched over four months.

Dr. Christian’s surgery notes tell part of the story:

  • 12/23/19: Neck wound down to the larynx with jugular exposed. Wounds to the abdomen and flank. Right axilla heavily debrided. Puncture wounds to left pinna.
  • 1/17/20: Placed bilateral surgical drains in neck; drains in both front legs; bone exposed on both caudal elbows.

From entering Marina on a stretcher for rechecks and laser treatments to walking into the clinic this past summer for a wellness check, Cinnamon was scarcely recognizable. She had gained weight and her hair had regrown.

Her owners never gave up and spent thousands of dollars to save her.

“We have a vast array of clients,” Mariann said. “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, because it’ll shock the daylights out of you. We accommodate people. Instead of making a canned estimate, we say, ‘This is what we can do,’ then we take it down to what they can afford.”

In some cases, Marina team members, most of them pet owners, bring home another animal.

“I like it that we get to rescue animals sometimes if people can’t afford treatment, instead of having to euthanize them,” senior technician Potter said. “I can’t fathom working for a place where you can’t do that.”

Frankie, a Yorkshire terrier, was found wandering nearby, his back displaying a large, raw wound consistent with a burn. He was adopted by our receptionist and underwent two surgeries.

Sweetie, another Yorkie, was found by a client. He had columns of matted hair on every limb, one of which cut the circulation to a hind leg. Potter performed medical grooming, but the impaired limb had to be amputated. His new owner wept, Sweetie wagged his tail, and I rejoiced that he had found a loving home.

“The highlights are seeing the difference we make in Tulsa and the state,” Mariann said. “People bring their pets in whose parents came here years ago.”

On a recent day, when 6:55 p.m. rolled around and the waiting room still had a few patients to be seen, a dog I had treated earlier was zipped to the back with a hypersensitivity reaction and covered in hives. I was up to my elbows treating three cats suffering from chronic stomatitis for a client whose work schedule always prevents her from getting to Marina before 6:45 p.m. My trusty fellow veterinarians and technicians sprang into action, and when I was able to take over from them, they lingered, even though closing time had come and gone. I would have done the same for them.

Far more than co-workers, I see these folks as members of a close-knit team I can always depend on. That is more precious to me than the newest medical equipment, a fancy building and 9-to-5 hours.

Dr. Lou Anne Wolfe earned her DVM in 1999 from the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She is a former business and political news reporter for The Journal Record and The Daily Oklahoman newspapers in Oklahoma City. In the months before entering veterinary school, Dr. Wolfe was a special-projects writer for the provost of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.


A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION

Mariann Ostapowich Haggerty

Mariann Ostapowich Haggerty and her now-deceased Great Dane, Tynnee.

Practice manager Mariann Ostapowich Haggerty is a little bit country, a little bit rock ’n’ roll, and as gutsy and vibrant as the veterinary clinic she helped to shape.

“Mariann is the heart and soul of Marina Animal Clinic and has been for a very long time,” said former office manager Dotty Hilliard, who hired Haggerty in 1991.

Back then, 24-year-old Mariann was a private nurse’s aide whose patient roster had dried up. A devoted Great Dane owner, she was a familiar face at Marina and a friend of Hilliard’s.

“I came in one day and saw a help-wanted sign,” Mariann said. “Dotty asked if I wanted a job, and I started as a kennel attendant.”

Hilliard liked that Mariann could manage aggressive dogs.

“She was a go-getter from the get-go,” Hilliard recalled. “We paid minimum wage and there were no benefits packages then. It was a time when people worked an honest day and gave their all and then some.”

A Working Mom

In 1994, Mariann’s son, Caleb, was born. After a short maternity leave, the single mom was back on the job. “As the clinic grew, I kind of grew with it,” she said.

Mariann’s love for the work gradually extended to her future husband, George Haggerty, DVM, Marina’s then-owner.

“Caleb was 18 months old when Doc and I started dating,” she said.

They were married in 2003, and Dr. Haggerty adopted Caleb, who grew up at Marina alongside his mom.

Meanwhile, Hilliard departed and first one and then another successor tackled the gargantuan undertaking of managing a 10-veterinarian, standing-room-only hospital, but neither lasted.

“After the two managers didn’t work out, Mariann stepped up,” said assistant clinic manager Heather Potter, RVT. “You have to know this hospital to manage it.”

Mariann dove in, wearing many hats. She helped craft employee benefits packages, an employee manual, and a protocol book setting forth exam and bloodwork requirements for patients of all kinds.

Tragedy Strikes

Mariann and George Haggerty’s world came to a standstill in 2011 when 16-year-old Caleb died in a car crash. Every October became “Caleb Haggerty’s Pit Bull Month,” when the breed receives discounted spay, neuter and medical services. Caleb’s pit bull, Chip, now 12, frequently accompanies Mariann to work.

“Chip originally came into the clinic with parvo,” she said. “His owner said pit bulls were a dime a dozen and he would just go get another one. Caleb took one look at him and said, ‘That’s my dog,’ and when the owner abandoned him, that’s exactly what happened.”

There’s never a doubt about where someone stands with Mariann, an original steel magnolia.

“My directness gets me in trouble sometimes,” she acknowledged. “It can come off as a non-compassionate, non-caring attitude. I was never the one that liked to speak with people, and I find it complex to this day.”

Her inner compass is reflected in the hospital mission statement she wrote: “To provide comprehensive, high-quality veterinary care with emphasis on exceptional client service and patient care at affordable prices, while providing employees with desirable, fulfilling and financially rewarding employment.”

Tragedy Strikes Again

Under Dr. Haggerty’s guidance, Mariann’s ability and confidence grew. Then came June 2018, when Dr. Haggerty underwent intestinal surgery. He didn’t survive. By then, Mariann was managing nearly every aspect of the business except the accounting, but the sudden loss of the veterinarian partner she could count on was staggering.

“I didn’t know if, when or how I could continue to run this clinic, because I wasn’t a veterinarian and couldn’t step into his shoes,” she said. “He was the brains behind this whole thing.”

There was little time for hand-wringing, however, as 39 employees and a chunk of Tulsa’s pet population depended on Marina’s continued viability.

Relying on an accountant as well as Potter and the loyal veterinarians Dr. Haggerty left behind, Mariann soldiered through for months until the coronavirus pandemic proved her to be better than she realized at contingency planning.

Almost immediately, Mariann drew up biosecurity guidelines and prepared the staff for the possibility that the hospital might have to close temporarily. She instituted a system whereby clients dropped off their pets in the parking lot and spoke to the veterinarians by phone to hear diagnoses and recommendations.

“I didn’t take a day off for three months. I trial and errored it,” Mariann said.

Scheduling and Paying

Marina veterinarians work 12-hour shifts 14 times a month, enabling two three-day weekends. Each team has five technicians per shift who handle bloodwork, radiographs, outpatient treatments, catheter placements and patient monitoring, freeing the practitioners to see the next client and serve more pets.

“Without our great support staff, I’d be nowhere,” Mariann said.

The hospital doesn’t offer client charge accounts. Instead, pet owners are referred to CareCredit and Scratchpay. They may or may not qualify for financing.

“We’ve been burned so many times,” Mariann said of Marina’s former payment policy. “We tried in the past to accommodate people by holding checks and then they would stop payment.”

Mariann watches every nickel and dime and writes every payroll check. Paying competitive salaries, buying pricy drugs and medical equipment, and covering the rent and utilities is a balancing act. In July 2020, Mariann’s  monthly pharmaceutical bill was a record high.

“At the end of the year, we don’t generate a huge profit. It’s more of a break-even,” she said. “The main thing is what a difference we make here, not only with clients but in pets’ lives.”


MANY SAD OUTCOMES

Performing euthanasia takes a toll on everyone at Marina Animal Clinic.

I feel a strong bond with clients who desperately love their animals but are courageous enough to end the suffering. Sometimes, however, a client simply cannot afford veterinary care.

The nature of Marina’s broad clientele means we often see pets in end-stage conditions owing to the owners’ economic circumstances. Such was the case of a rescued Shih Tzu that was on her second “forever” home and had chronic oliguria. Radiographs showed two large uroliths necessitating surgical removal. The money was not there. As I looked in the dog’s eyes, I wanted to save her as much as I wanted to save a hundred patients before her. I looked away.

My colleague did the euthanasia I couldn’t bring myself to do. I still get a lump in my throat about that dog.

Marina Animal Clinic

It’s first come, first served at Marina Animal Clinic, a walk-in practice in east Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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