Animal Hospital of North Asheville
Cat scans, lab reports, and a labor of love
By: Jonna Rae Bartges
It didn’t look promising for the seriously ill shelter puppy carried into the Animal Hospital of North Asheville (AHNA) that day. The tiny five-pounder was diagnosed with both pneumonia and canine parvovirus —each threatening enough on their own, but almost always fatal when combined in very young dogs.
“We all sat with that sick little waif,” said Dr. Amy Plankenhorn, a staff vet since 1987. “We did everything we could for him. Even his tiny tongue was damaged.”
“The day that little guy was able to swallow a mouthful of food,” said AHNA owner Dr. Betsy Thompson, “we all cried. We knew he was a fighter, and he was going to make it.”
Now a strapping 100+ pounds and a delightfully “goofy dog,” he’s a living, breathing, tail-wagging reminder of why they love what they do.
“Pets give you that safe space where you truly feel unconditional love,” Dr. Betsy said. She knows, from her three decades running the region’s premiere state-of-the art veterinary hospital, that sometimes pet owners can feel closer to their animals than to other people.
It’s that powerful, all-encompassing heart-centered bond people feel for their pets that brought Dr. Betsy, her husband and business partner Dr. David Thompson, and their 42 person staff—35 of whom are women —into the veterinary field in the first place.
“Sure, there are sad days,” said Dr. Amy. “But we have puppies! And kittens! We see moving, wonderful things happen daily. Our patients are deeply loved by their owners.”
Since opening its doors in 1977, AHNA has been a leader in channeling people’s love for their animals into an educated, proactive approach that emphasizes preventative care and wellness for the thousands of mainly dogs and cats they see each year.
Those dogs and cats, by the way, each have their own separately marked entrance. With the huge expansion and renovation project at AHNA now completed, the healing center has morphed into a 10,000-square-foot showplace with huge glass walls that now dominates the corner at Merrimon Avenue and Beaverdam Road.
It was the very brief life of a very small dog that launched what’s become an Asheville healing legacy.
Dr. Betsy recalls she was a young girl in rural South Carolina in the mid 60s, and her cherished Chihuahua Abby began having trouble breathing and developed fluid in her chest. Even though Dr. Betsy’s parents weren’t wealthy, they spared no expense in seeking care for the tiny dog.
“After we exhausted all the resources at the local vet’s,” says Dr. Betsy, “we took Abby on the three-hour drive to Columbia, and a bigger veterinary clinic.” That practice put the dog, which had never slept anywhere but in Dr. Betsy’s bed, in a small cage without a blanket. After giving Abby injectable antibiotics for two weeks, the clinic called the family to tell them Abby was dying, and to come get her.
“She died shortly after we picked her up,” Dr. Betsy said. “Of course I was heartbroken, but I was also angry. Did anyone look at the fluid from her chest? Did she get any kind of personal attention? I wanted that clinic to do diagnostics, and treat her with compassion and respect. I wanted to find out what was wrong, and help her.”
Dr. Betsy had grown up with a menagerie of pets—an ongoing assortment of dogs and cats, along with the occasional skunk, cardinal or snake—and always knew she wanted to be a vet. Her upsetting experience with Abby cemented her resolve to not only get into the field—but to change it for the better.
Now, nearly half a century later, Dr. Betsy and her veterinarian husband, Dr. David, have created a state of the art animal hospital that sets the bar for the region.
AHNA is marking its 35th anniversary and the completion of its extensive remodeling project with an Open House Saturday July 14, 2-4 p.m.
Even in its original 1,200-square-foot space, AHNA vowed to be different. “From day one,” said Dr. Betsy, “Dave and I committed to doing all that could be done to benefit the patients and educate the owners.”
For one thing, as the Abby experience showed, standard procedure at veterinary clinics mandated that people stay out of the back of the facility when their pets were patients.
“We always encourage people to accompany their pet, and now, after the expansion, we have the space to let owners be with their pets during treatments or after procedures. We can accommodate them and make them comfortable.” She pointed out there’s room for owners to even lay beside large dogs in the post-op ICU.
While Dr. Betsy always wanted to go into animal medicine, Dr. Amy admits the idea of becoming a vet was not a lifelong dream. “I liked the pets the family had growing up,” she said, “But honestly, it was more my enjoyment of science and natural curiosity that led me. I worked for a vet during high school and really loved it—that also helped me decide.”
Her vet school class was 50% women, Dr. Amy recalls, “And now the ratio is much higher.”
“My classes were 65% women,” said Dr. Susan Wootten, the third woman vet on the team and a doctor with AHNA for 10 years. “Now, the class pictures of the incoming students have a few guys—and that’s it!”
Dr. Betsy said that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“The average new veterinarian has about $167,000 in student loan debt after eight years of college, and can expect to make about $69,000 their first year. We’re seeing more women and fewer men because it’s not a very high-paying profession. People with the skill sets that go with veterinary medicine can do anything they want, and men usually end up going into higher paying professions.”
Even though veterinary medicine isn’t the highest paying career path, for many, the deep compassion they feel for animals outweighs financial considerations.
For Dr. Susan, the decision to switch from people to pets came a bit later in her life.
“My family always had a lot of pets when I was growing up,” she said. “Cats, dogs, guinea pigs, hamsters— I was the primary care giver for all of them, and was the one who took the animals to the vet.
“I always had a strong interest in medicine and science, and was planning to do physical therapy as my career all through school. In fact, it wasn’t until the last week before graduating from college I realized I didn’t want to work exclusively with people.” Luckily, she had a friend who was a vet, and asked if she could come on board and work with her. For the next year she worked herself up the ranks, starting as a receptionist, then advancing to a vet tech position.
After that year of on-the-job training, Dr. Susan was admitted to vet school, and continued to work at her friend’s practice while she was earning her degree.
She frequently saw exotic animals on an emergency basis during her internship at the University of Georgia Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and will never forget the night she treated a six-foot boa constrictor. She’s rather relieved that’s not the norm for her current roster of patients.
“We serve mostly dogs and cats,” said Dr. Betsy, “and devote nearly 100 percent of our energy in continuing education to learning more about them.” There are other facilities in the region that specialize in exotic pets, she said, and AHNA has several federal rehabilitators on staff working with wildlife emergencies as they show up.
When asked how they maintain an emotional distance from their patients, the doctors looked at each other—and laughed.
“We DON’T keep an emotional distance!” Dr. Betsy said. “We get involved with our patients. Not to the extent that it interferes with our work —but we learn everything about them —their homes, their personalities, everything. We become part of their team. We love them, we mourn when they die, and we celebrate when they heal.”
A big emphasis at AHNA is education, said Dr. Betsy, and one of the most common mistakes pet owners make is not realizing the importance of preventative treatment for their dogs and cats.
“Often owners don’t do anything about dental care until the damage has been done, and their pet has an unhealthy mouth,” said Dr. Betsy. “One of our vets—my husband— focuses exclusively on dental care, and we have a thorough teaching program for our owners. With the right training, anyone can learn how to care for their pet’s teeth and gums.”
Besides frequently being clueless about tooth (and fang) brushing, pet owners are sometimes unaware that heart worms post a serious threat to both dogs AND cats in Western North Carolina—even indoor felines.
“In 1977, people didn’t even know that heart worm was a big threat for dogs,” said Dr. Betsy. “Now we’re letting them know that respiratory conditions in cats can be caused by heartworms, so, for instance, a cat that is coughing or wheezing may not just have a fur ball but could have heartworms. We educate cat owners that it is important to give medication to prevent heartworms in cats because heartworms in cats cannot be treated and we are left with only providing supportive care.”
Some good news about preventative medicine and educating owners is that instances of animals getting hit by cars is definitely on the decline, said Dr. Amy.
“People know now that their animals should be in fenced yards, or on a lead, and not running free. We definitely do interventional care as needed, but in general, people are now just better informed about keeping their pets safe.”
“Veterinary care now doesn’t just focus on vaccinations,” said Dr. Susan. “We’re continuously doing a lot of education, teaching owners about their pet’s various nutritional and emotional needs, covering every stage of the pet’s life.”
Another big difference in animal medicine these days, said Dr. Amy, is how much more understanding vets have now about the unique psychology of the cat. “In school the professors would tell us that cats were not small dogs, but then they’d just teach us about dogs. Cats need completely different care than dogs.” Everything from the way cats manifest disease to how they react to stress or express affection is dramatically different in the feline world.
While all the vets work with all kinds of animals, Dr. Amy is particularly adept at charming cats and is a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
Another very positive change in the field, said Dr. Betsy, is that thanks to comprehensive veterinary technician programs like the one at AB-Tech, it’s now possible to hire staff members who have been thoroughly trained to the profession.
“We have 10 certified vet techs in our practice,” said Dr. Betsy, “who come in already trained in microbiology, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology —everything they require to be an immediately valuable part of the team. They’re our eyes and ears, and contribute much to the high quality of pet care.”
The vets were quick to share their years of experience with young people considering the field. They advise it’s important to know that:
- Veterinarians and vet techs need to like people. If you only like animals, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
- It’s hard work to get into the profession, and it’s challenging once you’re there. You must be committed.
- You’ll need a strong interest in science, and a healthy curiosity.
- Good communication skills are a must.
- Volunteer with veterinarians as much as you can from an early age.
- Get as much experience as you can before applying—veterinary colleges will look for that.
- Keep up your grades.
A quick tour of the now 10,000-square-foot facility Animal Hospital of North Asheville revealed the latest in technological advancements and special considerations for pets’ comfort, including:
- Separate facilities in the hospital for cat patients and dog patients to provide for their very different needs
- A very special “quiet cat treatment room” so that our cat patients can remain calm for procedures like blood pressure assessment, catheter placements, and blood drawing.
- Updated ICU units (separate ones for dogs and cats) for constant attention of critical patients while still letting family members be present in spacious glass pods
- Intensive Care Pods so families can visit right in the treatment room while the patient is under constant observation by veterinary technicians and doctors
- Very comfortable and spacious beds for patients—there is even TV!
- A generator so that life-sustaining equipment seamlessly continues during power outages
- A Special Procedures Room for endoscopy, otoscopy, rhinoscopy, and other advanced procedures.
- Two state-of-the-art suites for Dental Surgery.
- Large, up-dated Surgery to allow for the many monitors, warmers, lights and all sorts of equipment needed for laparoscopic surgery
- Comfortable Recovery Room for close monitoring of patients while they recover from anesthetic procedures
- Kitchen/food preparation room for preparing patient food according to their likes
- Comfort Room with couches and chairs that provides privacy for families facing end-of-life issues for a beloved pet family member
“We’ll never be ‘done’ with the facility,” Dr. Betsy said. “There will always be something new we want to add for the comfort of our patients. For instance, we plumbed the Community Education room to accommodate an underwater treadmill if we decide to include one in the future.”
Walking through the newly renovated healing facility, Dr. Betsy’s eyes glow with pride at what she and her team have to offer the region’s pets, and their owners. One of the biggest rewards of her career path, confides Dr. Betsy, is she and her team get to know wonderful people. “Everyone comes through our door comes because they love their pet,” she smiled. “That means that they are very special people and we immediately have a bond.”
“We’re only dealing with the people who love animals,” she smiled. “That means they’re already special.”
For more information about Animal Hospital of North Asheville and their July 14 Open House, visit their website at www.ahna.net, or call them at (828) 253-3393.
Jonna Rae Bartges, Emmy winning producer, speaker and minister, is the author of Psychic or Psychotic? Memoirs of a Happy Medium. She is the founder of PSI, Practical Spirituality Institute, the happy medium between the worlds of science and spirit. To schedule a consultation or register for her next workshop call her at (828) 337-4017 or visit her website at JonnaRae.com.