He thought he was being called to the physical therapy room to receive final instructions before going home. Instead, what he got was cheers, applause and a few barks and tail wags.
Dr. James Brester hadn’t been in to work at his Bean Blossom Animal Clinic since mid-November. For several weeks, “Doc” been a patient at a hospital and then Brown County Health & Living Community, fighting a serious infection in his leg.
At first, he tried to fix himself, he admitted. “‘Didn’t work,” he said with a wry smile.
After several surgeries, antibiotics and physical therapy, he was released from BCH&L on Friday, Dec. 23.
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And Monday, the day after Christmas, he was back at work again — though on reduced hours, 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We will have to limit the number of people signing in to ensure he doesn’t overdo it his first few weeks back. It would be wise to call before visiting to make sure things are still going as planned,” said his daughter and clinic employee, Anna Gartner, in a Facebook post to 2,000-plus members of the Support Bean Blossom Animal Clinic page.
For a man who’s used to working at least six days a week from before dawn to after dark, that’s going to be quite a change.
Physical therapist at BCH&L, Brandy Gardner, said Doc had been a pretty good patient — “except for that,” as he balanced a plate of refreshments in one hand and dragged his walker behind him like a pup fighting a leash. Therapist Gerri Galvo rushed to spot him.
“My balance is a little off, but it’s always been a little off,” said Doc, 74, smiling.
Longtime friend David Shaffer urged him to “please, please, please, follow the directions of your doctor and your family in not short-circuiting your recuperation schedule,” to a room full of laughter.
Doc said he planned to start off slow, coming in to work a couple hours a day, then work back up to full strength.
“I love doing it. I hate to be not doing it,” he said.
“I don’t know what else I’d do.”
BCH&L staff organized the surprise party and pet parade the evening of Dec. 22 to say goodbye to their “celebrity patient.”
Activities director Janie Harden was close to tears as she thanked “our most loving vet,” who’s treated up to 100 animals per day, six days a week, for 50 years.
“Consider all those pets whom we love and consider parts of our family. They have lived longer and had higher-quality lives thanks to you, Dr. Brester,” said Shaffer, who took his beagle to him for 17 years.
“Consider a doctor who still makes house calls.
“Consider a doctor who performs his services at incredibly affordable prices — to his own personal shortcomings, I know — for people who cannot afford to care for their pets,” Shaffer said.
“You have the love and respect of all of us who are privileged to call you friend and to have you as our doctor.”
“It’s been pretty neat to be able to help him after he’s helped so many,” Harden said, as care center guests, Brester’s family, clinic staff and friends visited with each other and the dogs whom Doc petted and talked to.
A Brown County native, Doc opened his Bean Blossom Animal Clinic in 1966, just down the road from his family farm. He and his wife, Paulette, both graduates of Helmsburg High School, settled in Bean Blossom and began raising a family which would eventually include four children.
It didn’t take long for stories to start circulating about his above-and-beyond work ethic.
A letter to the editor in the March 5, 1970 Brown County Democrat praised him for going to find a beagle reported to be lying on the side of the road. He called its owners to let them know that it had been killed, and when they said they did not want to take the body home, Dr. Brester said he would take care of it. When they asked what they owed, he said, “Not a cent,” the letter said.
Over the next 46 years, thousands of other stories would be told about Doc choosing to charge nothing or next to it.
Clinic staff regularly kept a file of chronic care cases for which he charged nothing. It’s what he believes is right given the poverty in this county, Paulette said.
His prices are one of the main reasons customers said they wait hours to spend just a couple minutes with Doc.
But that’s not the only reason. It’s also his heart.
To lifelong veterinary customers like Franklin DeWester, Doc is “somewhat like the Mother Teresa of the animal world,” he told The Democrat in 2010.
Over the past six years, DeWester has been able to return the favor by defending Doc against attempts by the state veterinary licensing board to bring him into compliance with current office practices.
Doc told his clients he thought he’d have to retire after a February 2014 Indiana State Board of Health inspection found concerns with recordkeeping and lack of surgical equipment and hot water.
The Indiana Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners hasn’t closed that case yet; last month, the state asked the board to impose disciplinary sanctions.
However, his license is still good until October 2017.
Since the license issue is being worked out, he’s not retiring, Doc said at his party.
Plus, “I haven’t sold the place yet,” he said about a search for a successor.
He said he’d had some veterinarians looking, but nobody really serious. One person wanted to charge a $40 office visit fee to patients, and “that won’t work,” Doc said.
His patients and his staff were overjoyed to welcome him back for as long as he wants to keep working.
“He’s awesome. I love him so much,” said Ashley Mullis, who’s been working “at his right hand” five days a week for three or four years.
She said patients had been coming into the office to ask how he was doing and when he was coming back. Thousands of them sent well wishes on Facebook, mailed cards or wrote prayers on the sign which hung on the clinic’s front door.
Paulette laughed when asked if she was letting him go back to work. She said she didn’t think she had much of a choice.
“I want him to be happy,” she said.
Slowly ambling around the room, encircled by the extended family he’d gathered over 50 years, Doc was.