EXCHANGE: Veterinarians continue family tradition

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SESSER, Ill. (AP) — Charles Spence poured more than 38 years of long days and nights into his veterinary practice, turning it into a thriving business that became a fixture in the Sesser community.

But Spence sold his hospital in 2007 to a couple of upstart veterinarians without running so much as a credit check on them.

Not a very good business practice, unless you factor in that those upstart doctors were his son and daughter-in-law.

A meeting of partners

While studying veterinary medicine at the University of Illinois, Charles' son, John, lived next door to another veterinary student named April. With common interests, they talked often, and their friendship grew.

But it wasn't until April was getting ready to graduate and take a job in Wisconsin as a dairy veterinarian that the friends became something more. They dated for about six months before getting engaged.

After John graduated, the two were married, and April gave up her dairy work in Wisconsin to move to Sesser with John and join the Sesser Animal Hospital practice.

Growing the family business

John and April served as veterinarians alongside his father for six years before Charles retired and sold the practice to them.

"It's really great. It's been great for me, and it's good for them," Charles said. "They stepped into a practice that was active, and it's been good for me, because in a small town like Sesser, you're probably going to have a hard time selling a veterinary practice to someone who actually wants to come to Sesser because most of the young veterinarians would prefer to go to the larger cities."

With another doctor seeing dogs, cats and any other animals Franklin County pet and farm owners bring to them, the business has grown and thrived.

John's dad was able to see, at the most, 20 patients a day. More than 30 patients regularly come through the doors of the hospital today.

"They've increased the practice tremendously since I was in the practice," Charles said. "There's no comparison to the amount of work that they do. I did a lot of work, but two or three people can do a lot more work than one person."

Working together

John and April have the luxury of collaborating together on difficult cases - a luxury not afforded to John's father when he set up the hospital in 1969 in a small building across the street from its present location.

But sometimes the couple needs a third opinion and leans on Charles' years of experience.

"A lot of times, I'll go out the back door, and he's on the mower, and I start flagging him down, 'Come look at this. Tell me what you think,'" John said.

Most couples would admittedly have a difficult time working with each other every day, but it doesn't seem to affect this couple as they do what they love with the one they love.

"It's hard to leave work at work and home at home sometimes, but we have to try really hard to do that because you could talk about work all the time, and you could talk about home all the time," April said.

A busy practice that has the two doctors hopping between operating rooms and observation rooms throughout the day keeps their work relationship highly professional.

"She's seeing cases, I'm seeing cases," John said. "I may be doing surgery, and she may be seeing patients. So, there are a lot of times when we're both here, but we're both so busy doing things that we don't really have much chance to interact."

In his father's footsteps

John enjoyed spending summers making farm calls with his dad and helping out around the veterinary office, but it was never his dream to follow in his father's footsteps; neither did his dad encourage it, knowing the long, arduous hours veterinarians have to work.

"Before he ever went into it, I told him what he was getting into," Charles said. "I think a lot of the young veterinarians may not know the full implications of what they're getting into, but he grew up with it, so there was no excuse for him not to know what he was getting into."

John and April have two children - Emma, 10, and Wade, 7 - but they aren't sure if there will be a third-generation veterinarian in the Spence family.

Emma says she wants to become a veterinarian when she grows up, but right now she's not too wild about every aspect of veterinary work.

"She's not into blood or smells," her mother said.

Working as hard as they do is not necessarily their dream for their children anyway.

"I don't know honestly," John said. "If it's something they felt driven to do, then I would definitely support them. I would not push them because it is a very difficult life. It's not a job. It's what we are all the time."

April said even a trip to the grocery store often requires hearing about the symptoms of a cat or dog's illness.

Giving tough news

Veterinarians also feel helpless when telling an owner there's nothing they can do for their pet that has become like a member of their family.

"The hardest part is when you know what's wrong with them, and you can't fix it," April said.

Charles said people's attachment to pets has increased since he began his practice 45 years ago, with some seeing their pets as a connection with a family member that has passed.

"We've had a number of instances where the pet is the only living link to somebody who died," John said. "In that situation it's very emotional for them, and it's even more difficult for us because we want to have the best possible outcome."

Plans to expand

Plans are in the works to double the size of the animal hospital. They hope to break ground sometime next summer or early fall on the expansion that would turn it into a 3,000-square-foot hospital.

They also are discussing bringing on one or two more veterinarians to keep up with the demand of their 7,000 clients.

Although Charles was careful not to push his son into becoming a veterinarian, dad is happy with the way things have turned out for the practice he started 45 years ago, and for his son, who used to ride around with him in his truck on the way to someone's farm.

"They're doing great," Charles said. "It's amazing to me what they have done since they took over."


Source: The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan,


Information from: Southern Illinoisan,

This is an Illinois Exchange story offered by The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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CHRIS HOTTENSEN(Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan


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