Helping hands on the climb back up: When disaster strikes, veterinarian finds her solo practice is anything but

APPLETON -- Dr. Rachel Bakeberg, D.V.M., made herself the exception when she graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Rachel Bakeberg, D.V.M., and technician Jamie Halvorson check over Penny at the Appleton Veterinary Clinic. A June 23 fire destroyed a large portion of the clinic building, but the veterinarian and her staff continue to serve clients of both large and small animals as workers rebuild the fire-damaged portion. Things are crowded as equipment, inventory and both large and small animal care is all housed together behind them. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

APPLETON - Dr. Rachel Bakeberg, D.V.M., made herself the exception when she graduated from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Unlike most of her fellow graduates, she shunned offers to join established clinics. She headed west to the rural community of Appleton determined to practice solo.
Now that disaster has struck, she’s discovered that her practice is as much a community venture as a solo one.
“It’s just a great community,” said Bakeberg of all the help that has come her way since a June 23 fire at her Appleton Veterinary Clinic.
To help her business get back on its feet, the community is hosting a 5K fun run in Appleton’s Riverside Park at 6:30 p.m. today. All of the proceeds go to help her acquire equipment destroyed by the fire.
Community support has been a steady back wind to her rebuilding efforts. No sooner had she started cleaning up after the fire when a client arrived with a pair of gloves, ignored her protests, and went to work “like a whirlwind” in the blackened interior. Others soon joined to help tear away fire-damaged walls and remove the baked and blackened items within; one woman dropped off icy-pop treats when she noticed they were all working under a hot sun.
Firefighters estimate the fire reached a temperature of 1,200 degrees at its peak. It broke out in the employee break room after everyone had left for the day. A microwave - not in use but plugged in - is believed to have shorted out, said Bakeberg.
It was around 5:30 p.m. and she was just heading back from her clinic in Dawson when her husband, Justin, reached her mobile phone with news that the clinic was on fire. She made the trip in record time, but Appleton firefighters were faster still. They had already knocked down the blaze.
Appleton Police Officer Cody Thompson had been among the first on the scene, and knew the code to open the door to the clinic’s pet boarding kennel. He dashed in and rescued nine of the 10 dogs and one cat by tossing them out the door.
Saving the animals was the only thing on Bakeberg’s mind as she reached the smoke-filled building. Realizing one animal was still missing she ignored the firefighters and entered the building, but was forced to retreat. A firefighter suited up and retrieved the body of the missing dog. She tried CPR to revive it, but could not.
After the last of the animals had been attended to, she began to assess what she faced. The fire didn’t breach the break room by more than five feet, but the intense heat had essentially baked everything in connected areas. Corrosive soot coated and ruined everything it blackened.
Once sparkling, stainless steel laboratory equipment now rusted away. The break room, exam rooms, reception area, and her office - filled with personal items and memories of loved ones - were destroyed.
The side of the building used for the care of large animals survived largely unscathed, and now also houses Dr. Bakeberg and her employees as they continue to serve clients. The clinic serves both large animals and pets, and she continues to make on-the-farm calls.
Yes, she’s lost some small animal clients. Understandably so, she said. Until her clinic is rebuilt, she cannot offer all of the care as before, including surgical services for small animals.
The good news came shortly after the fire. Her insurance adjuster told her she had good coverage: It will cover the costs of rebuilding.
The bad news followed like the clap of thunder after a lightning strike. Her inventory coverage did not include the pricey equipment destroyed in the fire, but essential to her practice. Everything from microscopes and surgical equipment to an X-ray machine and anesthesia equipment all need to be replaced on her own dime.
The take-home message: Make the time to do a walk-through assessment with an insurance agent when taking out a policy, said Bakeberg. She had believed the inventory coverage also included the equipment.
Cost overruns had challenged the town’s new veterinarian when she built the clinic less than five years earlier. “I was just getting to the point where I was seeing the light,” said Bakeberg of the business. “Just getting to the point where it was feeling comfortable, or at least surmountable and I get pushed back down in the hole.”
There were those who told her that maybe this was the time to reassess her decision to open a solo, rural practice.
But she harbors no misgivings about her decision. She cannot imagine going forward without her staff and the clients she has come to appreciate so much. Nor is she willing to let a setback change her course. “I would never let something like a fire make me fail,” she said.
She is humbled by the outpouring of community support, and said she finds it awkward to be the recipient rather than the giver.
As for the financial hole the business faces, she said: “I think my legs are strong. I am a good climber apparently. I like to climb.”
There’s no questioning her determination. Since she opened the clinic, the only time off she’s enjoyed was a short winter vacation with employees and the two times doctors kept her in the hospital while delivering her two children.
“Rachel has been such an asset to our community, and that was probably one of the most beautiful buildings in all Appleton,” said Ashley Clemen, owner of Escape Fitness in Appleton and organizer of the 5K event today. Clemen said everyone was saddened by what happened to her friend and to one of the town’s newest buildings, and wanted to do something to help, she said.
“And everybody wants to make sure she sticks around and rebuilds and keep the business in town,” said Clemen.
“I am going to fix this and make it as good or better than before,” said Bakeberg of her plans. Contractors tell her the remodeled portion of the clinic should be completed by mid-September.
Clemen said 150 are expected to participate in the fun run, and others are supporting the cause with donations via the Fitness Center’s Facebook page:

What To Read Next