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Unusual Practice

Gerald Brown is one of a dwindling breed--an animal doctor in a poor inner-city neighborhood.



Inside the Sweeney Animal Hospital in west Woodlawn, a mixed-breed puppy named Kieko shimmied around on top of a metal examination table.

"There, there," whispered the hospital's proprietor and sole veterinarian, Dr. Gerald Brown, pressing his lips to Kieko's ear. The animal grew still, and so did her owner, Fred Thomas, a behemoth of a painting and plastering contractor with an earring in one ear.

As Brown proceeded through his routine exam--looking into the pup's eyes, ears, and throat and squeezing its abdomen--Thomas told him his hybrid wolf had died and his pit bull had been stolen from in front of his South Shore house. Thomas's body suddenly jerked upright. "Jesus, look at that big-ass cat!" He relaxed when he saw it was only a stuffed animal Brown keeps on a shelf for decoration.

"You've got a pretty dog here," Brown said, "but she has roundworms in her stool. I can show you what they look like under the microscope if you like."

"Ah, no. No thanks," Thomas replied. But his nine-year-old son hustled off for a viewing.

"She got the worms from her mother before she was born--it's nothing you did," Brown told Thomas. "I'm going to give you some medicine to give her. Take this plastic tube, place it on the side of her mouth--never directly down the throat--and have her drink the stuff down. Do this once every two weeks."

Thomas nodded.

Brown quickly gave Kieko a booster vaccination and explained the $97 bill.

"Looks good, doc," said Thomas, who paid in cash.

Brown stopped for a moment to sip from a cup of cold decaffeinated coffee, then walked into an alcove adjoining the exam room, where he met his next patient, Butch, an aging shepherd-collie mix.

Butch was weighed on a new electronic scale of which Brown is immensely proud--the number of pounds appears digitally. The vet then gave the dog a once-over. It had raw areas on its shoulders and on its back near the tail, which Brown fingered gently. "Look," he said, pointing to little dark red specks on the scale. "That's flea crap." He explained that fleas were probably the cause of the raw patches, and prescribed cortisone cream. He also convinced Butch's mistress to take home some flea spray. Butch's hind legs seemed weak, the woman said. Brown suggested aspirin.

After the woman left, Brown said Butch had a history of biting. "He's getting old now, but up through '84 he'd bitten about six people. He's a watchdog. Security is a big deal out on the south side, which is why there's the fascination among my customers with big breeds, like shepherds and rottweilers. I see a lot of them."

A soft-spoken, gray-bearded man of 55, Brown is one of a dwindling species of veterinarians--an animal doctor in a poor inner-city neighborhood.

He likes to point out that his patients and their maladies are similar to those treated by his suburban colleagues. Yet his practice does have differences. Big dogs are more common, as are car accidents involving them. Brown also treats diseases, such as distemper, that his suburban counterparts have mostly consigned to the history books. And how many Winnetka vets see animals that have ingested rat poison? "This is Calcutta Animal Hospital," Brown cracks.

Moreover, low-income clients can have difficulty paying their bills. The practices of medical doctors who set up in the inner city are bolstered by medicare and medicaid, which enable them to serve the poor and elderly and still make a reasonable living. Not so the urban vet. "I run a private hospital here," says Brown, "and no one is going to give me a nickel." And no one has.

The Sweeney hospital is doing well under Brown, but success has not come easily. Midway through his 28-year reign at the hospital, Brown, who never wanted to be anything but a vet, found himself in economic peril. Being the good professional, which Brown is, just wasn't cutting it. He had to become more prudent and better at tailoring his business methods to the demands of his south-side clientele.

The Sweeney Animal Hospital is open four weekdays from 8 AM to 6 PM and Saturday from 8 to 3. On Wednesday and Sunday the hospital is closed. Clients are asked to make appointments, though they can come in without one if they're willing to wait.

The hospital occupies a small brick building at 65th and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The top half of the structure that fronts the street is painted yellow and has an outlined sketch of a dog. The front windows are covered by steel grates, which are pulled at night. A Lloyd's of London sticker advertises the security system.

The waiting area is typical of veterinary reception rooms. There is a rack of leashes and a diagram of cat breeds. Two copies of the magazine Dog Fancy rest on a table. A wall photo shows two Persian cats lusting after a goldfish swimming in a brandy snifter. And there's a bulletin board full of snapshots of Sweeney pets: Lassie Harris, a German shepherd shown seated in a large chair; Goldie McReynolds, a mutt positioned by a television; and Chase and Dweeb Williams, two black-and-white cats staring into the camera.

The reception desk is invariably occupied by Eddie Thomas, the office manager. Thomas, who is 40, has been working for Brown off and on since he was in grammar school. "As a kid I used to come down here and visit," he says, "and after a while Dr. Brown asked me if I wanted to make some pocket money sweeping the floors." Now the courtly Thomas greets the customers, fills the prescriptions, and keeps the patient files. "This winter we're going to get a computer for the office," he swears.

David Brown, who's no relation, cleans the animal cages, washes the dogs, draws blood, and assists Brown whenever he's needed. Patrick Jones, another assistant, comes in on Saturday and drops by to check on things in the evening. The premises are also shared by a German shepherd named Judy and a calico cat named Alexis.

On Friday afternoons Brown gets relief from an older vet who only wants part-time work. The rest of the time he is on duty. He often skips lunch, working straight through the day, sustained by countless cups of decaffeinated coffee that he brews in his closet-size office.

The office, tucked off the waiting room, has only enough space for a coffee maker, some file cabinets, and Brown's medical texts. Farther back are the examination room and a tidy operating room, its most impressive feature an X-ray machine for which, Brown points out, he paid $20,000. The rear portion of the building contains 50 cages that hold pets being treated in the hospital or recovering from surgery. Out back, toward the alley, is a quartet of dog runs.

Brown draws clients from across the south side and from all classes except the very poor. He says he gets few welfare customers because they often can't afford to keep pets, and because the Chicago Housing Authority bars all animals but Seeing Eye dogs from its family flats.

Customers bring their pets to Brown for the usual reasons. Puppies and kittens get the initial series of immunizations; aging animals receive yearly vaccinations. Brown sells leashes and four varieties of a private-label pet food. The staff will bathe big dogs, but they balk at clipping hair. Animals can be boarded for up to two weeks.

The clinical caseload runs the gamut from cancerous tumors and feline leukemia to abscesses and mange. "I see flea infections that would knock your socks off," says Brown. He sees a case or two of distemper every month, but he almost never sees rabies. Hunting dogs that clients bring back from the south often develop transmissible venereal tumors, which are not commonly seen here. And each spring the hospital is swamped with dogs afflicted with parvovirus. "Without treatment the animals die in two or three days," Brown says. "I see at least 30 dogs with parvo in the spring, and God knows how many more die at home." In the summer of 1980 there were so many cases of parvo in the Chicago area that the clinic of the Anti-Cruelty Society had to close for a couple of weeks. Since then an effective vaccine has reduced the incidence tremendously, although city vets are still burdened.

Brown sees hookworm in dogs and cats, and heartworm in dogs. The heartworm problem is worst in the low-lying south suburbs--the Markham Animal Clinic saw nearly 90 cases last year--but Brown treats up to ten dogs a year for it.

The emergencies tend to be fractures, gashes, cut feet, and rat poisonings. A liquor-store owner recently brought in his mixed shepherd with a four-inch knife gash down the side of its face. The rat poisonings Brown treats with vitamin K and a transfusion of blood provided by Judy, the house shepherd.

Though Sweeney is located near the Dan Ryan Expressway, seldom does anyone haul in an animal hit on the highway. "My clients don't usually have animals that run at large," Brown says. "Sure, animals are hit all the time on the Ryan, but most of them don't make it home. They die, or the city picks them up. To pick up an animal that's hit, you have to be a well-meaning person--and then you have to be willing to pay the bill. There aren't many people like that."

Brown sends out animals with fractures that require a metal pin to be inserted in the bone. "It's very difficult to pin an animal and then see it come back with the pin missing. I can't deal with that, can't give the nursing care that pinning demands. And since I have also had problems collecting from pin customers, I refer those cases out." Patients whose owners can foot the bill are sent to Dr. Claude Gendreau, a Riverwoods orthopedic special- ist of considerable reputation.

"A good doctor knows his limitations," says Brown. "A good doctor refers." So he sends his eye cases to an ophthalmological specialist in Riverwoods, complicated surgeries to a colleague in Des Plaines, and brain cases to a vet from the University of Illinois who has privileges at a Berwyn animal hospital.

Yet Brown still does an average of eight operations a week, relieving uterine infections, removing breast tumors, performing castrations, spayings, and declawings. His most frequent procedure is taking a "foreign body" out of a pet. "A bone is probably the best example, and yet the most common thing I see is a corncob wedged into the small intestine. Cats often swallow a piece of thread, which can be deadly, 'cause if it gets looped around the tongue it can act like a knife to pierce the intestine."

"My name is Charlotte Calhoun, and this is Buttons," announced a rotund woman in a maroon coat who was carrying a light-colored toy poodle. Calhoun had just taken the clearly male Buttons to another vet for grooming, so its coat was neatly trimmed. Around its chest was a pink harness, to which a pink leash was attached. The dog also wore a pink bead choker at the throat and two pink bows in its hair.

"How's everything, doc?" Calhoun asked Brown, who took Buttons into his hands and carried the trembling pooch toward the hospital scale. "Dogs--my God, they're nice pets," she said, "but they're so expensive. They're just like children."

"Hey, look at how pink you are," marveled Brown.

"Pink he is, but he's also somethin' else," said Calhoun. "He bit me. He was just in a terrible mood. I'm going to go home and throw his behind right upstairs."

Brown put on a rubber glove and inserted his finger up the dog's rectum, forcing out a quantity of fecal matter that he gave to Eddie Thomas for a lab check. He sprayed the dog's hind end with an odor eliminator and expressed the two glands adjoining its rectum that spray a smelly substance when the animal is threatened. He peered into Buttons's eyes, pressed its abdomen, and studied its teeth.

"It's hard to believe that you would give anybody any trouble," Brown told Buttons, though David Brown's hands were around the dog's neck as a precaution. Brown clipped the poodle's nails and gave it a rabies shot, which brought a little yelp. "We have to wait a couple minutes for the stool results," Brown told Calhoun, "but it looks to me like he's fine."

Calhoun thanked him and accepted her bill. David Brown reattached the pink harness and the leash.

"I would have gotten a color other than pink, but that was all I could find," Calhoun explained.

"No problem," said Brown.

"Well, we haven't seen this guy in a while," said Brown to a Siamese cat named L.D.

"We're overdue," said L.D.'s owner, David Bey, an unshaven man in a cap. "The reason I brought him in is that he has a tendency to throw up when he gets through eating."

"When he spits up, does it look like a tube, with some foam on the end?" Brown asked.

Yeah, said an amazed Bey, that's exactly how it looks.

"If a cat really vomits, then it's really sick," Brown said. "But the way this guy is acting, it sounds like he has an irritation of the digestive lining. Now what I'd advise is that you feed him in smaller portions, if that's possible. I'm also going to suggest you give him a heavy dose of hair-ball medication for two or three days--sometimes that stops the problem."

"Hair balls, huh," said Bey, as he watched Brown scrape huge chunks of tartar off L.D.'s yellowed teeth.

Gerald Brown grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his grandfather, his father, and various uncles ran a butcher shop. His father liked to have a dog around to eat scraps, and Brown remembers with particular fondness a cocker spaniel and a Yorkshire terrier. He also kept gerbils and hamsters. "My mother was the dominant force in the household," Brown says. "And it was, you know, always "my son the doctor.' But I knew I was going to be helping pets."

After he graduated from the Michigan State University veterinary school in 1958, Brown spent a couple years as an Army animal doctor. He was stationed in Chicago but traveled throughout Illinois and Michigan to ensure that companies selling food to the Army were obeying hygienic standards in their plants. He worked for a couple of established vets, and then heard that Dr. Martin A. Sweeney, who was burdened with heart problems, needed someone to take over his practice, which had been on King Drive since 1945. Brown agreed to rent the business for six months.

His first day on the job was May 3, 1961. He remembers that he took in $73 in fees. "I had no intention of buying the place, but after six months I agreed to do it. The hospital cost $33,000. Sweeney carried me because I was able to make double payments in the summer, when business is always greater, and cut back to half payments in the winter."

Brown's operation was closer to a full-service operation then than it is today. He referred fewer cases to specialists, did grooming, and agreed to more boarding and bathing. Yet after a number of years he found his revenues weren't growing--his gross grew a measly 10 percent over a decade. "I was putting in long hours, and nothing was happening," he says. "I was constantly frustrated."

Part of the frustration, he has concluded in hindsight, came from the lack of respect he accorded his customers. "I bought into the myth that they couldn't afford me, and so I kept my fees down to compete with the neighboring hospitals, and I prescribed less-expensive medication. The thought of someone saying no to me was awful, so it was easier for me to lay out only one alternative. The choices were mine, not theirs." He--and his friends and family--also supposed that he would eventually relocate to a more lucrative site in the suburbs.

After some psychotherapy he realized he was stereotyping his customers as poor mopes for whom he had to make clinical decisions that would cost them less. But, he says, "If you sit and look out the window of this hospital, of the 100 cars that go by, 25 percent of them are better cars than I drive. What I figured out was that if something was important to my customers, they'd pay for it. It wasn't for me to make their choices for them--they should be allowed to choose whether they wanted an expensive medication or to go to a specialist." He also stopped thinking about moving, "so there ceased to be any temporariness about what I was doing."

About six years ago he traveled to Pompano Beach, Florida, to visit Dr. Gerald Snyder, a nationally known vet who bills himself as a "productivity consultant." Brown says, "Snyder was this guy writing articles about how to increase your business, and I went to see his hospital, which he was always bragging about. Damned if it wasn't in a black neighborhood."

Snyder reports that his area of Pompano Beach, which is 70 percent black, has a 30 percent rate of unemployment, but that he has always found it easy to generate sound revenues. Early on, Snyder's success spurred him to share (for a price) some business tips, advice that extends from the use of business forms and customer literature to how high to set fees and what color signs to use. "Black with yellow is the most visible," he insists.

The unenlightened usually take several-day seminars that Snyder conducts in cities around the country, but Brown settled for three hours of advice--for $400. Brown credits the consultation with saving his practice. "He showed me where I wasn't growing."

Brown had the top half of his building painted yellow, with the dog outline executed in black. Yellow also became a prominent motif in the waiting area, which had been all white. The bulletin board of patient snapshots went up. The poster of the cats examining the goldfish was added in order to send the message that he liked cats. It's an important message because cats--which used to account for 10 percent of his caseload--now make up 55 percent.

The entire Sweeney staff wear blue Oxford-cloth shirts embroidered with their names and electric-blue lab coats. Brown recently purchased name tags for the coats.

New patrons receive handouts written by Brown on his home computer that detail the treatment their pets receive. Snyder also recommended pet record cards so that customers can see exactly what their animal's medical history has been. Brown hands one to each new client, suggesting that they bring it back each time they visit. He has found that clients usually misplace the card, but he simply gives them a new one, which serves to remind them to come back to him. A year and a half ago he had his first business cards printed; he makes a point of handing them out to satisfied patrons. He also has taken to sending a condolence note to families whose pets have died.

Brown's baseline rates were raised to ride a tad higher than his city competitors'. An office visit costs $14, excluding medication and shots; his neighbors charge $10 or $12. A total bill will normally run $30 to $35, but Brown extends credit only sparingly. He never used to exact a deposit for hospitalization. "You're getting a reputation for giving away freebies," another vet told him. "You'll never survive." Now Brown requires a 50 percent deposit.

Brown now lays out expensive options for clients, instead of hesitating to as he once did. "I offer the best care, and they can take the alternative or leave it." He mentions a woman whose beloved shepherd had a fractured shoulder; Brown referred her to an orthopedic specialist in suburban Lisle whose bill came to $1,200. "That was her decision, not mine," Brown says proudly.

While much of Brown's trade comes by word of mouth, he now runs a small display ad in the Yellow Pages. His competitors tout their "low cost" services; Brown's ad reads "Quality care for 27 years."

Brown thinks he had to go upscale. "I needed to do it for my own self- esteem. I knew I was going to lose people. Still, the rule of thumb in this business is that even if you raise your fees 20 percent across the board and lose 40 percent of your clients, you'll make the same amount of money. I was hopeful I'd do better than that." He has. In the last ten years the gross revenues at Sweeney have grown by 50 percent.

A survey done for the American Veterinary Medical Association shows that in 1987 the average vet in a one-man hospital devoted exclusively to small animals grossed $160,000 annually and cleared about $51,200 in income. Brown grosses more than $200,000, outdistancing at least two of his south-side colleagues, and says his personal income is substantially better than average.

He says he feels comfortable in his new persona. "People used to come to me in spite of me," he says. "I wasn't nice--that was my defense mechanism. Now I feel inordinately nice, and people come to me 'cause of me." He continues to keep a certain distance from his clients, preferring to be called "Dr. Brown" instead of "Jerry." But a faint smile crosses his face when he says, "I get lots of birth and graduation announcements."

Brown has had well-known clients, including Albertina Walker and Pop Staples. He has had drug dealers as customers, including Willie "Flukey" Stokes, the flamboyant south-side drug dealer who was gunned down in 1986. "He was a great client--he came to me ever since he was a kid. He had a Cadillac with a leather belt across the trunk. When he was here, the cops would pull up to the hospital and wave at him. He always had mutts, though. You know, it's the little shit with the beeper who needs the rottweiler--Willie was so big he didn't need a big dog."

But more often the Sweeney customers are waitresses, contractors, and secretaries. "Cleaning ladies are good clients and have been for years," Brown says. "They are earning 40 bucks a day and have no trouble spending it on their pets."

The customers appear devoted to Brown. "Every puppy I've ever had I've taken to Dr. Brown for shots," says Fred Thomas, Kieko's owner. "When I took the first dog in, I thought he was very kind. You know, a lot of people out here are in it for the money, but I don't think he is."

"I'm more of a fool about my animals than I am about my husband," says Catherine Grigsby, a waitress with a slew of dogs and cats. "I'd trust Dr. Gerald Brown more than my medical doctor. He spends time with me, telling me this and that. He'll take a check as payment, and that's sure somethin'. He even cleaned my shepherd's teeth. I haven't had my own teeth cleaned in my entire life--that is, when I had 'em."

Snowball, a white domestic cat, had been anesthetized and lay on Brown's operating table, its limbs held in position by strands of yellow rope. Brown, masked and gowned in a scrub suit, shaved Snowball's belly and expressed its bladder; the urine flowed into a plastic dish. He retrieved a packet of sterilized operating instruments from an autoclave, slathered the cat's bare stomach with soap and iodine, and draped its body with blue surgical cloth.

Brown made an inch-long incision in the cat's belly, then cut through a thin layer of subcutaneous fat and proceeded into the abdominal cavity. Using a hook-shaped instrument, he snared one horn of Snowball's uterus and then the second horn. He tied off the adjoining arteries and veins and finally used a scalpel to excise the full uterus and ovaries. He was careful to get everything. "If you leave the tiniest part of the uterus in a cat, later she will still come into heat," he explained.

Snowball's incision was sutured with coated nylon, which Brown would take out in ten days. "Nobody bandages much today, but old Dr. Brown does," he said as he applied a gel over the stitches. Then he bandaged the cat's midsection and gave it a shot of penicillin. The uterus rested on the table. Snowball was scheduled to recover in a cage in back until the next day, then go home.

"I love animals," Brown says, "and I would do anything for them. I'll get angry at an owner when he doesn't care about an animal. But basically I see animals as here for us humans--an animal is just not as important as a person. If it was, we'd be eating people and not animals. In most situations we are equal, but when a choice has to be made--their well-being or ours--I go with the person. A woman came in once who had 20 cats. She was scratched to shit. She was being victimized totally by her cats, so it made sense to declaw them, even though they underwent three minutes of pain."

There are a number of things he does to animals that make him uncomfortable. He clips dog ears purely for cosmetic reasons, and he admits it's wrong. "It's not OK that I do it," he sighs. "But there is a demand. What I do is keep the dogs medicated and in the hospital for an extra day or two so they go home with less pain than they do at other places."

For a long time he couldn't put animals to sleep. "I told my people, 'You'll have to go to the city pound or one of the welfare agencies.' It was just too difficult for me--I didn't want to put an animal to sleep, no matter what." He says he found the act too Godlike and felt that administering death soiled his hands. Then he learned that the Animal Welfare League, where most of his clients went when he turned them down, was electrocuting animals. "I felt I could do better than that," he says. So he began administering overdoses of anesthetic, which Animal Welfare now also does. The Sweeney remains are buried in a pet cemetery in Woodridge. But he still doesn't like being a practitioner of pet euthanasia. "It's a very difficult burden to have."

Brown thinks the kind of care his hospital dispenses is limited because it's a one-vet operation. He compensates as best he can, refusing to leave especially sick pets in the cages overnight and taking them to his home. When the hospital is closed, customers are encouraged to call him at home; he fields 15 to 20 calls on a Wednesday, 2 to 3 on Sunday. But he has his limits. When he's unavailable in a nighttime crisis, Brown refers his customers to Chicago Veterinary Emergency Services (CVEC), an all-night emergency room on North Clybourn run by a consortium of 20 north-side animal hospitals. But he doesn't like to do that, because he feels CVEC costs too much. (An average CVEC bill runs $80 to $100, according to Dr. Richard Pehta, the clinic manager.)

Yet Brown will also refer elsewhere the few impoverished pet owners who come his way. The principal resource for the destitute who are seeking general treatment is the Anti-Cruelty Society clinic, which offers rock-bottom fees to families below the federal poverty line. "Anti-Cruelty's a lousy second choice," says Brown, pointing out that his referrals often must wait two weeks to get an appointment. Jane Stern, the society's administrative-services director, concedes there are delays but points out that they served 2,386 regular clients in 1988--in addition to all those served in their spay-neuter clinic.

There is no health-care safety net for pet owners without money. Private pet insurance, an idea pioneered by Lloyd's of London, may be one answer; it is now being sold by at least two American companies. The Connecticut-based Animal Health Insurance Company, for example, will sell you a $97.50-a-year policy that covers neither standard vaccinations nor hereditary diseases but that will pay up to $1,000 in expenses associated with tumors, skin diseases, and car accidents. Veterinary Pet Health Insurance, which is based in California, has cheaper policies; it had 44,000 policyholders last year and expected to have 73,000 by the end of 1989. Yet none of Brown's customers has pet insurance, and since the most he ordinarily charges is $400, he doesn't see the need for them to buy it.

But insurance is not an option for the poor, nor would it cover primary care. Some throw themselves on the mercy of their vets. Dr. George Harris, the owner of Southtown Animal Hospital at 73rd and South Ashland, estimates he takes on three to five charity cases each week. "Oh Lord, yes," he says. "I do things for nothing." Harris is particularly susceptible to one man who schlepps him the nearly dead off the Dan Ryan. "The man'll come in and say, 'I only have so much money, doc. What can you do for this animal?' I do what I can."

Brown, however, prefers not to take pro bono cases. "I'm not Noah's ark," he says. "Mine is a quality practice with overhead and a payroll and more than enough business. So charity work is just a small part of what we do here. A guy in the suburbs can take care of a charity case here and there and feel good about it. Here, where I am, if I took charity cases there'd be a deluge."

Since Brown bought the Sweeney practice 28 years ago, the south and west sides, where Chicago's poor are concentrated, have undergone a large transformation. As things changed, the vets vanished from many low- income neighborhoods. Consult the Yellow Pages, and you won't find a veterinarian practicing across the heart of the west side, from west of the Loop to Oak Park. In addition to the Sweeney hospital, a few other south-side practices have stayed, notably the Kragness Animal Hospital at 60th and South Wentworth, which was founded in 1908. There are only three black-owned hospitals, among them George Harris's. The black vets report that they have been unable to entice any young black vets to join them.

Brown has no intention of retiring. His two daughters, to whom he is devoted, are now in their 20s and on their own. His paternal feelings have turned in part to the three Yorkshire terriers that he and his wife keep. "They are my children," he laughs.

He is proud that he keeps up-to-date--even after 30 years in practice. Every year he logs 100 hours of postgraduate training, nearly four times what the state requires.

A longtime runner, he completed nine marathons, but five years ago persistent lower-back pain forced him to stop. He blames a combination of running and lifting dogs. Still, he says, "When I'm off on Wednesday and Sunday, I don't know what to do with myself. As long as I'm physically able, I will do this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.

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