The kindness of strangers restores faith in human nature

Anonymous donors help pay for emergency care

November 16, 2009 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

"In the middle of a stressful, sad day, a man walked up to our front desk and waited patiently as we worked with some very stressed out clients. And then he did something that made us all cry,” said Dr. Amy Carr of California Veterinary Specialists, an emergency and referral practice in Murietta, Calif. “He pulled from his pocket five $100 bills and handed it to the receptionist. He said he wanted us to use it to save a pet whose owners had no money. He would not leave his name and only said that he loved us and appreciated what we do.”

The Good Samaritan had come into Carr's hospital that day as moral support for a friend whose pet was ill. While waiting with his friend, whose pet had to be euthanized, the Good Samaritan must have become keenly aware of how difficult it is for some people to pay a large, unexpected bill.

If they’ve been practicing for a few years, many emergency veterinarians have seen a handful of non-medical miracles: strangers who meet in the lobby help pay for treatment of the less affluent owner's pet. It can happen a few times in a veterinarian's career, and it's always memorable, according to Veterinary Information Network (VIN) Members who have recounted such experiences on VIN's message boards

These Good Samaritans never fail to emotionally affect the hospital staff, particularly these days when the stop treatment point has shifted dramatically downward, said Dr. Tony Johnson, a clinical assistant professor at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and a VIN emergency medicine consultant. He said the number of financial euthanasias has skyrocketed in the past couple of years.

In another California hospital, an elderly couple came in to thank a doctor for trying to save their two dogs during the previous two months; both dogs died from conditions related to old age. They overheard a young family’s tearful dilemma about not being able to afford the deposit for their Chihuahua, Tico, that had been severely injured when attacked by a large dog. Tico was the family’s only pet.

“They anonymously paid part of the deposit by credit card,” Dr. Marianne Williams said. The elderly couple donated $500 toward the deposit. “I don’t think they even spoke with Tico’s owners. Without that deposit they would have had to euthanize Tico that night.”

After Tico’s initial surgery, the 6-pound dog had a three- or four-inch gangrenous sloughing wound on his side that exposed three ribs. Williams said the wound was so bad that the experienced staff would gasp and recoil while changing bandages. Five days after the attack, the owners almost euthanized him. Three weeks later the wound was granulating.

Tico was such a sweetheart that the staff fell in love with him, Williams said. “Everybody was amazed because these days people can’t afford what needs to be done. Tico would have been long gone without their help.”

In rare cases, people donate for a pet whose owner they haven’t met and never will. They have their reasons for donating that most likely spring from compassion and an abiding love for people and animals.

“People are just amazing sometimes. Just when you think there is no more good, somebody does something like this,” said Dr. Johnson of Purdue. “At one of the local hospitals I did a stint at, there was an older lady (named Janine) who was using her inheritance to help people who couldn't pay. She would actually get mad at us if we didn't call her for folks that couldn't pay and would help out with many thousands of dollars, day or night. She was amazing.”

Johnson has been practicing emergency medicine for 13 years. During that time he has seen some people contribute toward someone else’s bill, but that woman’s generosity was head and shoulders above any act of generosity that Johnson has ever witnessed. 

"I had just started at that hospital," he recalled. "There was a cat in terrible shape in an incubator, and the doctor said the owners can’t afford the care but we have a call into Janine. I was skeptical because I was sure she wouldn’t help, or that she’d offer $50 for a $5,000 case. The vet tech just rolled her eyes at me."

When Johnson spoke to Janine about the cat in the incubator, he asked her about the financial burden. 

“She essentially said ‘OK, new guy, I know it seems like it’s too good to be true. I have no financial concerns, I have this inheritance, and I’m not eating cat food," Johnson said. "She paid $3,000 out of $5,000 for the cat. She never let owners know who she was. She would visit the ones she was saving. She wanted to help fixable cases that had a pretty good chance of a good outcome. She was savvy. She wouldn’t take on cases where it was clear it would not go well from the get go. Was it a problem that could be fixed? The price didn’t faze her as much as whether or not the owners were good and would the pet go back to a good home. (She cared about) quality of life issues.”

Johnson noted that the office manager wasn’t keen on the idea because it was so prone to abuse, and some of doctors refused to call the donor.

These phenomenal acts of generosity probably happen more often than is realized because the donors prefer to remain anonymous, and some veterinarians don’t discuss it for fear people might expect it or abuse it. Some veterinarians contacted by the VIN News Service for this article preferred not to discuss their experience publicly.

Back in California, Carr’s hospital has not yet used the donated $500, but medical staff there plan to use it for the next treatable case where the client might otherwise elect euthanasia. Hospital officials will write off the rest of the bill.

“This man is such an inspiration of kindness,” Carr said. “We want to do the right thing and save a pet's life with it. We’ll find (a patient) with a good prognosis. We're waiting for the right case, and it won't be long.”

Carr acknowledges that even if veterinarians have an inclination to give away the store, you can’t give away so much that there won’t be a store left.

“You have to balance your pocket book and your soul. No one wants to euthanize a treatable situation,” she said.

Carr has seen anonymous bill payers five or six times in her career.

“They always come when I'm in a deep spot. I’ve never seen it happen in such desolate times,” she said. “I'm guessing he's not wealthy, but at this time people are trying to reach out and help others in need. It restores your faith in human nature.”


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