Survival spirit shines again under pandemic pressures.
Dr. Libby Robertson is well-known for her animal health expertise. Over the years, she’s also become a pro at pushing through a crisis. “This is a profession that constantly puts you to the test,” explains Robertson. “But I’ve really been tested as a business owner too, and long before COVID-19.”
Robertson took ownership of Martin City Animal Hospital in 2008, the same year the Great Recession hit. As if that wasn’t hard enough, a road construction project dumped another challenge the day she opened.
“There was a mound of dirt on Cherry Street so big that you couldn’t even tell I was here,” says Robertson, pointing to the corner of Cherry and 135th Street. “It pretty much blocked the view of my hospital. I opened in the middle of a failing economy and a construction project, but I made it through.”
Fast forward to 2020 and deja vu on her twelfth anniversary. The economy is tanking again and right outside Martin City Animal Hospital — guess what.
“Unbelievable. I looked out the window and saw road construction beginning and thought, really?!”
Weather extremes had taken a toll on 135th Street, so crews began shutting down Martin City’s main drag for pavement repairs. Robertson had to re-route clients to her parking lot from the other direction. Meanwhile, she was inside adjusting her business to pandemic conditions. The world suddenly seemed upside down and all too familiar at the same time.
“Another road construction project on top of another economic disaster, just like in ‘08. I hope this isn’t a 12-year cycle of some sort,” jokes Robertson, taking it all in stride. “I can’t imagine what the next round would look like.”
A Hospital Under Intensive Care.
Unlike restaurants and so many other businesses, Martin City Animal Hospital wasn’t blindsided by the pandemic’s sudden surge. Robertson had an eye on what was coming well before it hit home. “We had been monitoring this as a profession since early January and getting reports through the AVMA and other sources. We knew it would affect us differently than other businesses.”
She could already tell that social distancing would be needed to help control the spread of the virus and protect her practice. But making adjustments isn’t as straightforward for an animal hospital as it is for other businesses.
“I have such a small staff that we can’t just do shift rotations. Our work is so physical that there’s no way to work from home. We’re usually just inches apart from each other when we’re caring for a pet and we had to get creative with handling that differently.”
Before state and local governments had a chance to get a grip on conditions and put together restriction orders, Robertson’s team was already recalibrating their procedures, transitioning to curbside service, and starting to reach out to clients with news of the changes. Meanwhile, they held their breath as the City sorted out ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ businesses.
“Lots of anxiety,” says Robertson. “We weren’t sure we’d be declared essential and allowed to stay open. It was critical. We don’t work in a field where you can afford to take months off or even a few weeks. We don’t have that cushion in our business models or our incomes.”
Whew! Robertson’s practice was deemed essential but immediately faced a struggle. She had to restrict service to serious health issues and pressing needs only. Routine visits and procedures were canceled along with a large piece of her regular springtime revenue. Suddenly, Martin City Animal Hospital was among small businesses across the country sinking toward the red.
“The financial struggle is real,” says Robertson, standing on the sidewalk along her quiet parking lot. “My business should be booming right now but we’re in survival mode. Like thousands of other small businesses, we’re looking to government assistance to help us pull through.”
What’s happening is as unfair as it is painful. Robertson has poured her life into developing a hospital that gives pets from here to Blue Springs superior care and has become a proud symbol of Martin City’s renewal. She’s fully devoted herself to her practice, going the extra mile to strengthen her skills, gather highly-specialized equipment and make a difference in a very tough line of work.
“We’re used to dealing with adversity. Sometimes clients struggle to pay or an emergency surgery doesn’t save a life. Difficulties are just part of what we do. I’ve seen my staff tested over and over again long before the pandemic. They’ve proven their resilience so I knew we’d go into this ready for the fight.”
Robertson describes her staff as ‘tough as nails,’ determined to do whatever it takes to keep the doors open. They’re unwavering in their commitment to changes she’s made to keep the entire operation clean and safe. and remain vigilant as the crisis keeps things difficult. “It drags on, you know. Our hands are raw from washing.”
Any business owner will tell you that good help is truly hard to find, so you’re grateful when you find it. These days our hometown vet is full of gratitude, and that makes the financial struggle especially painful.
“My staff means the world to me. Having to cut their hours and things like that has been heartbreaking for me. You know, in 12 years I’ve never had to do that,” says Robertson, watching an employee embrace a dog passed from a car window. “As a responsible business owner, you want to take care of your people. But there are limits now on what you can do and still stay in business.”
But Martin City Animal Hospital wants you to know it’s not all gloom and doom in their world. Robertson says tails keep wagging and persistence fetches all sorts of little rewards. These professionals do, after all, have some very cute patients.
“Oh nothing lifts your spirit like a puppy! We’re seeing a few and had a client bring in a new kitten recently too. She stood at the window outside and we all had a moment at the glass. It was wonderful. You have to have those moments. You still get to giggle and enjoy yourself. It’s not all bad right now.”
A Calming Voice and Healing Touch.
For all of us with dogs and cats, Robertson is exactly the voice we need to hear right now. She’s a passionate scientist naturally drawn to all of the mysteries and challenges of animal health, and a valuable authority during this pandemic. Local television news reporters seek her perspective and calming reassurance to give Kansas City key information and peace of mind. She’s also no stranger to radio interviews and keeps her patients posted on observations, recommendations, and changes at the hospital on her website and social media.
“There’s a lot of information out there and it’s constantly changing. Facebook videos are a great way to stay in contact with my patient community and they’ve really welcomed it.”
Communication adjustments probably represent the biggest change in Robertson’s client relationships. Face-to-face time in examination rooms has been replaced almost entirely by phone conversations, even with clients sitting outside in cars at the curb. Words get the basic job done but she misses everything else.
“You have to adjust your language when you’re describing a health issue over the phone. You don’t have the benefit of facial cues and other interpersonal communication that helps understanding. It’s not easy making sure you’re getting important information across. Sometimes clients don’t understand what you’re saying at first and you don’t realize it. And you never want to sound condescending. So you’re walking a fine line.”
Clients have been cooperative and supportive through all of this. They’re rolling with the punches just like everyone else as disruption becomes the new normal for all of us now. They’re putting off nail trimmings and other care that can wait, and wishing the animal hospital they love all the best. “This is difficult but the people we serve really appreciate what we’re up against and having to do,” says Robertson. “That helps a lot.”
As far as the future goes, Robertson is looking beyond this crisis and sums up her coronavirus forecast with the kind of easy-going confidence that’s become her trademark and puts you at ease.
“We’ll get back to some sort of normal, I’m sure. I don’t think we’ll ever get back to life the way it was before the pandemic, but the storm will pass. I really think we’ll get this bug under control just like we have before, going back centuries. Once we understand it more, I have absolute faith in the scientists who will get this virus nailed down and treated.”
Meanwhile, here’s some extra Dr. Libby advice to take to heart even if you don’t have a pet. “The pace of life has suddenly slowed. Take your moment. Enjoy your family and get outside.”
“I’m having a great time with my kids and taking lots of walks. I’m seeing so many people doing the same thing. Focus on that. Make the most of it.”
Well put, Dr. Libby, as usual. We’re pulling for you and all other businesses hunkering down to keep Martin City moving forward. We welcome your inspiration and share your optimism. Our community has survived so many other tough times and challenges over the years. This too shall pass, like all the trains that chug by us every day.