Belle July 2010

Page 11


photo by Scott Elmquist

Pet Project



A trailblazer delivers cost-conscious animal care.

ori Pasternak sits in the waiting room of her Carytown pet clinic chatting with a seasoned pet owner whose forearm bears a full-color tattoo of her first King Charles spaniel, Buttons Maximus. Cindy Torgersen has driven her brood of spaniels all the way from Gloucester to have Pasternak clean their teeth — all three dogs for less than her vet back home charges for just one. Pasternak’s five-month-old hospital, Helping Hands Veterinary Surgery and Dental Care, aims to make those procedures affordable for pet owners. She realized it was a niche that needed filling during her 12 years at a local pet hospital. Owners who care deeply for their pets land in a grim predicament when life-saving surgeries cost too much. Pasternak’s driving mission is to keep costs low. “In order to be affordable we cut corners,” she says, “but we cut on the human side, not the animal side.” Animals that are referred from other veterinarians come prediagnosed. Because Pasternak doesn’t do regular check-ups, there’s no danger of client poaching. If the high cost could have forced the owner to put the pet down, a referral to Pasternak preserves an animal’s life and a loyal client. Between the various -ectomies, dental work is the

bread and butter service. After all, “every animal needs to get their teeth cleaned,” Pasternak says, “but not every animal needs surgery.” The full-time staff is lean, just receptionist Elaina Russell and Jacqueline Morasco, her loyal “Jackie of all trades” who decamped with her from the previous pet hospital to help manage the office. Pasternak lucked into volunteer painters and muralists who sponged paw prints onto the colorful floors. A patient bartered a shingle and window signs for vet services. Pasternak’s husband, Jake, is chief financial officer for Westwood Pharmacy and helped her gauge how low she could price procedures while covering her overhead; he helps with the books at night and on the weekends. “I can’t stand the numbers and he can’t stand the blood,” she says. For folks who can’t afford to help their pets even at Helping Hands’ lower prices, there are options. A $5 “good citizen fee” is tacked onto each normal procedure and goes toward a Helping Hands fund. If people still can’t pay, they can agree to spend an hour of time for every $10 with Helping Hands or a local animal-related organization. In the few months since the business has opened, the response has been phenomenal, Pasternak says. Last month it won one of the Virginia


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Museum of Fine Arts’ annual Muse Awards for creative businesses. In June a woman from Pennsylvania called to make an appointment. Even with travel, she said, Helping Hands’ rate would save her $1,000. The success of the business, in part, rides the everswelling wave of pet lifestyle mania in which doggie bakeries cook up treats that help doggie insulin vendors stay afloat. “The human-animal bond has grown amazingly, by leaps and bounds,” Pasternak says. “They’ve become family members.” Once a man brought in a pet that had been injured in a car accident before attending to his own dislocated shoulder. Back out in the waiting room, Torgersen agrees. A dear friend of hers recently died and had specifically stipulated that when she did, the dog should be allowed in the room to examine her corpse, so it would know she’d died and not simply abandoned him. As Torgersen gets ready to return to Gloucester with her three spaniels, Suzy, Brandi and Harry Potter, she’s a satisfied customer. She notes that none of her pets is groggy from over-sedation. She plans to spread the word back home. “They have dogs here,” she says, referring to Thor, the office Chihuahua. “It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”


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