Photo by Tommy Leonardi
Helen Caffrey was a woman with a warm heart and a love of animals, living in West Philly and running a dog-walking service. Then one day she saw an ad for a job at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and her life was never the same again.
Working as the clinical receptionist at the busiest academic veterinary ER in the country (with more than 9,000 visits per year), Caffrey must take phone calls from frantic pet owners as well as deal with the ailing pets and their owners who walk into the hospital by the dozens every day. She will often be the first voice and face people have contact with in VHUPs ER, a job she doesnt take lightly. She spoke with us by phone from her home, her parrot, Baby, cawing jealously in the background.
Q. How do you maintain the human touch and keep up the pace?
A. It can be difficult because youre dealing with the public but youre also dealing with the students and the doctors and the whole business of the hospital and the school. You have to be sensitive enough for people to be able to talk to you regardless of what theyve done or however theyre treating their pet or however far they think they should go with the [medical] treatment of their pet. You cant be judgmental.
Some people cannot afford to have anything done. Some people can afford everything. Even if you dont agree that if it was your pet that you would or wouldnt do something, you just have to be supportive because for the pets sake you just want a decision to be made and you want it to be taken care of, especially in a real emergency situation.
Q. And then theyre often very upset, I imagine?
A. And theyre upset. Many people are very understanding of what can and cannot be done, other people are not too understanding and many people have a difficult time dealing with the fact that its going to cost money. Then there are other people who come up and hand me credit cards to help pay for other peoples bills you know, anonymously. Things like that are very nice and keep you going.
Q. Does the patient flow change according to the time of day and year?
A. Oftentimes at night you see different things than you would during the day, basically because during the day the local vets are open and people have access to them. And you see different things in different seasons.
You see exposure cases in the wintertime, heatstroke in the summer. Puppies bite electric cords and things like that around the holidays. In the summer dogs might get sick because theyre swimming in certain ponds or lakes and they ingest the water. When spring comes around we see a lot of bite wounds from dogs playing together that wouldnt normally be acquainted.
Q. Whats the toughest part of the job for you?
A. The phone is really difficult. Sometimes it does get frustrating because you feel that people dont have a lot of common sense. I actually got called once at night by a woman who was upset because there was a bird in a tree outside of her window. I said, Do you mean that this is a wild bird? And she said, Yes, of course its a wild bird. I said, Well, I dont know where you think the bird should be. She said, Its freezing outside. I said, Yes, but most wild birds live outside. And she hung up the phone on me. [laughs] So you have to have a very good sense of humor.
Q. Have there been things that were just heartbreaking for you?
A. There are people who only will seek care for their animals if I can guarantee them that it will be saved and theyll be able to continue to breed it. And there are some things that Ive heard from people that are so bad that I cant even tell anybody what they are because I would never burden anybody with those stories.
And crazy things. Like people calling me up and asking me, What kind of vaccination does a tiger cub need? And three months later hearing that a tiger cub fell out of a window in South Philadelphia. You hear it all. Sometimes you dont even know whether or not the people that youre talking to are really all with it.
Q. Whats the strangest thing youve heard?
A. One woman called and told me that the Navy was sending out a pain probe over the city and she wanted to know what we were going to do about this because her cats were going crazy.
Q. Whats a pain probe?
A. I have absolutely no idea. [laughs] And she wanted an explanation for this and she didnt want me to tell her that the university didnt know anything about it because she knew darn well that they did.
And the woman who used to call to talk about her birds all the time in the middle of the night. I think sometimes some people just want somebody to talk to. We recognize their voices and they become pretty familiar to us. Usually those are late at night.
Q. Is there anything you might want to add?
A. Its definitely a very interesting job. Just when you think youve heard it all, something else happens. My faith in people keeps me going. I do see a lot of good, and its fascinating watching people interact with their pets. Its fascinating what they will do for their pets.
Originally published on March 2, 2000