The moment she pulls into George Troublefield's driveway, JoAnn Helm is surrounded by a crowd of tail-wagging dogs. The brood isn't shy about showing their excitement, piling into her vehicle the moment she opens the door.
Driving what looks like a large recreational vehicle, Helm and her assistant, Denise Gist, arrive every year at the property to give annual vaccinations and check-ups to Troublefield's four dogs — Bronson, Hunter, Trixie and Casey. For their owner, whose work leaves little time for visits to a veterinary clinic, Helm's mobile service has been a godsend.
"I love these dogs, but trying to load them all up to go back and forth to a vet's office doesn't work for me," said Troublefield, one of two customers Helm visited Thursday morning.
"This way, they get great care and it saves me a lot of headaches."
Helm, a practicing veterinarian in Hernando County for 23 years, said she now offers its most comprehensive mobile veterinary service. And being able to deliver her expertise in a relaxed, unhurried atmosphere has helped to redefine her outlook on her profession.
"I find it much more personal now," Helm said. "Spending more one-on-one time with pets and their owners allows me to better understand their immediate needs and concerns. That was something for me that was missing before."
Helm spent 18 years caring for family pets as owner and primary veterinarian at All County Animal Hospital in Brooksville. But she began noticing that clinic's atmosphere didn't always sit well with owners of elderly or homebound dogs and cats that weren't used to the bustle of activity.
Shortly after selling her practice in 2004, Helm began thinking about a new way to deliver her services. In 2008, she and her husband, Steve, bought a vehicle specially outfitted with everything she needed to provide care, including sinks, cabinets, cages, testing equipment such as a blood analysis machine, microscope, digital X-ray machine, and even a small operating area for minor surgeries.
"Being able to offer the same services I had been in a more relaxing and open atmosphere is wonderful because I don't have to fight a clock," Helm said. "If I see an animal that needs more attention, or if the owner has questions, I now have the time for that."
Helm, who lives in Floral City, spends fall, winter and spring serving clients in Citrus and Hernando counties. During the summer months, she drives her mobile clinic to the northern Michigan community of Alpena.
"A lot of my clients are pet owners I've known for a long time," Helm said. "Over the years, many of them have also become good friends as well."
Pet owner and longtime client Ruth Potter said she was delighted to learn that her favorite veterinarian gone mobile. The owner of two cats, she recently bought a 4-month-old daschund puppy she named Kona Kai. When Helm arrived Thursday to vaccinate and provide a physical evaluation on the puppy, she was greeted with a hug.
"I haven't owned a puppy in 40 years, so there's a lot I've forgotten," Potter said. "To me, the best thing about having JoAnn as my vet is that there's no hurry. I know I'm going to get good guidance. Most vets don't seem to have the time to do that anymore."
Helm has heard that often. Because many veterinarians adhere to strict scheduling at their practices, there is often less time to discuss with pet owners issues and needs of their animals. As a result, things often get overlooked.
"If you're not educating the owner then how can you expect the pet to get the benefit from your service?" she said. "I want a pet owner to ask questions so that they fully understand what they have to do to keep their animal healthy. That takes time."
As a pet owner herself, Helm understands the personal relationship that people have with their pets. And when it comes to end-of-life decisions, she works with the owners on how they wish to proceed.
"It's so tough to make those kinds of decisions," Helm said. "We all want our pets to have a good quality of life. But if the situation calls for ending that life, I assure them it will be done in a peaceful, respectful manner."
Potter was quick to praise her veterinarian's compassion. A year ago, when Potter's 15-year-old cat, Roswell, became paralyzed, she asked Helm to come to her home to perform the euthanasia.
"I lay down on the bed with Rozzie on my chest, and we both stroked his fur while she gave him the anesthetic. He closed his eyes with love. To me, that moment couldn't have been more peaceful."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]