Dr. Erle Glenwood Case would be astonished to see what’s happened to the Savannah veterinary practice he founded back in 1909.
Although Erle was quite progressive for his day, he’d marvel at the technology available to veterinarians in 2009. He’d be pleased beyond measure that his descendants have carried on the family business, which today has six veterinarians, 30 employees and hundreds of patients.
Dr. Carla Case-McCorvey represents the fourth generation of veterinarians in the family. With her father, Dr. Jerry L. Case, she owns and operates the Case Veterinary Hospital on Eisenhower Drive.
On April 25, the hospital will host a birthday celebration, complete with birthday cake and all kinds of activities, to thank Savannahians for their business over the last century. Displays will include a replica of a 1930s-50s veterinary surgical suite, including an old surgical table.
Erle started out as a grammar school teacher, but later decided to attend veterinary school in Ontario, Canada. When he received a written offer of employment from a veterinarian in Savannah, he used all his money to pay his way.
"When he first got to River Street, he witnessed a fight," Case-McCorvey says. "Then when he got to the clinic, the veterinarian said, ‘I’m sorry. Business has been slow, and I can’t afford to hire you.’"
It wasn’t much of a welcome, but Erle couldn’t afford passage home. He went to the two other veterinarians who were practicing at that time to ask for work. "One told him, ‘If you agree not to bother my large animal practice, you can treat dogs and cats,’" Case-McCorvey says.
In those days, vets usually worked only with large animals, but the number of small animals being brought in for care was starting to grow. So Erle set up shop in a stall to treat the dogs and barn cats the farmers’ wives were bringing in. "The other vet thought they were a bother," Case-McCorvey says.
Later, Erle was able to set up his own practice, and spent half his time treating dogs and cats. "We like to think he was the first small animal vet in Savannah," Case-McCorvey says.
The biggest change in veterinary care since Erle’s day is the status of animals, Case-McCorvey says. Most animals in 1909 were required to work to put food on their owners’ tables.
"Even horses were not as much pets as transportation," Case-McCorvey says. "Some people had pets, but they were considered eccentric. Now pets are part of the family. They live inside, they sleep in a bed, they go on vacation, they’re even in family portraits."
Some modern vets go into animal husbandry, but most treat companion animals. Erle was unique not just because he treated small animals, but also because he was the first - and only - vet in town with a university degree.
"My great-grandfather was really progressive for the early 1900s," Case-McCorvey says. "He sent postcards to his clients to remind them it was time for an appointment, which was unheard of back then.
"He had an ambulance," she says. "He advertised his practice on the side of it. Vets didn’t advertise then and it was considered somewhat unethical to advertise. Now we have to advertise."
When the practice was being moved to its current location on Eisenhower Drive, some unusual stained glass windows were found. After looking at old photographs, the family realized they were from Erle’s animal ambulance. Today, have a place of honor on the walls of the hospital’s "Hall of Fame."
The display also features Erle’s microscope in its original case. "They don’t make veterinary students buy their own microscopes now, but they used to," Case-McCorvey says.
An old drug case that predates penicillin also is displayed, with the original sulfa drug vials inside - a reminder of a time when drug treatments were limited. "I call it ‘hair of the dog, eye of the newt,’" Case-McCorvey says.
There also are needles and syringes in the case. "My grandfather boiled them to sterilize them and sharpened the needles himself, which I can’t even imagine," Case-McCorvey says. "My dad used an autoclave."
Modern-day vets use disposable needles. Anesthesia was somewhat primitive at one time, too. "They put the large end of this cone on the animal’s nose and dropped ether in," Case-McCorvey says.
Two of Erle’s sons became veterinarians, but while Harland moved to California, his brother, Francis Horace Case, stayed with the family practice in Savannah. "My grandfather went to Auburn University because the University of Georgia had closed because of World War II," Case-McCorvey says.
Francis died in 2002, and remained active in the practice until his death. "He was able to attend my graduation, which was very important to me," Case-McCorvey says.
For many years, Case Veterinary truly involved the entire family -- and only the family. "My grandfather and dad were the veterinarians," Case-McCorvey says. "My grandmother was the bookkeeper and receptionist, and my mother was a receptionist and technician. When I was young, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t family."
Case-McCorvey has fond memories of her grandmother, Christine, caring for her when she was sick. "When I got sick at school, I couldn’t go home," she says. "They kept a cot in the office. I remember my grandmother being there and bringing me a drink when I needed it."
Case-McCorvey’s father and her mother, Gail, were busy with the patients at the time. "My dad used to do a lot of work at Oatland Island," Case-McCorvey says. "I remember him bringing some bear cubs here one time. They were very cute, but they were so mean."
When Case was a child, the family lived over their clinic, which was located on Ash Street. "I worked around the clinic after school," he says. "I never considered doing anything else. I was surprised I would actually have to apply to become a veterinarian.
"My dad just sort of always played me along, like a fish," Case says. "If I got to asking questions, he’d say, ‘That’s premature. You’ll find out in veterinary school.’
"It was a fascinating way to grow up," he says. "Everybody else had to cut grass and do chores, while I was helping during surgery and cleaning up the clinic. It never seemed like a chore. It’s fun to do what you love."
Case says his father was an inspiration. "I saw people who respected my dad and saw how much they respected him, so he was a person I really wanted to emulate," he says.
One day Case was at work when his youngest daughter called with a question. She was filling out an application for veterinary school, and wanted his opinion on an essay question.
"I was surprised," Case says. "I said, ‘When did you decide to go to vet school?’ She said, ‘I always thought you knew I wanted to go vet school.’
"She did like I did," Case says. "She came here after school when Gail and I were working to help us out. Day care wasn’t as common, then, so we just brought our kids to the hospital."
Kenneth Weaver became the first non-family employee in 1978. He was still in high school when he began working at the hospital through a work-study program.
Today, Weaver is a certified veterinary technician and after more than 30 years, still loves his job. "He’s been here since I was in second grade," Case-McCorvey says.
"When she grows up, I can leave," Weaver responds with a laugh.
There was never any doubt in Case-McCorvey’s mind that she, too, would be a veterinarian. "I never even thought about being something else," she says. "I really wasn’t pressed to do this, in fact, my parents probably discouraged me a little bit.
"They pointed out that if I was going into medicine, the human side was more financially rewarding. But in my opinion, it’s not nearly as emotionally rewarding."
Case-McCorvey did give human medicine a shot, though, when she participated in a work-study program in high school. "I went to Memorial, saw a baby being delivered and watched a spinal neck surgery," she says. "I found it more rewarding to treat pets than people."
With her own children -- Amelia, 5, and Carson, 3 -- Case-McCorvey is hopeful that at least one of them will want to become a veterinarian. They already accompany her to work to help out, just as she did.
Case Veterinary Hospital is as modern as a human hospital. Laparascopy is used to perform some surgeries, including spays. Only a tiny incision is required for the insertion of the laparoscope.
"We can use it to see, to grasp, and to cut, or ligate," Case-McCorvey says. "We really want people to know about this. If a woman has a hysterectomy, she would want laparoscopic surgery because there is so much less involved.
"It’s the same with dogs. It’s less painful, there is less risk of infection, and they go home the same day," she says. "The dogs wake up 20 minutes after the surgery, wagging their tails."
Laparoscopic surgery costs $100 more than traditional surgery, but is worth the cost, Case-McCorvey says. Case Veterinary Hospital is one of the few practices in Savannah that offer it.
Lasers have become fairly commonplace in veterinary surgery, and they, too, reduce risk of complications. "We can make incisions without touching the skin, and it seals the nerve endings and blood vessels," Case-McCorvey says. "It is less painful because there is less swelling and inflammation."
Case has its own x-ray processing center, and has digital dental x-ray capability. It also provides intensive care for its sickest patients, including an oxygen cage.
The hospital has its own laboratory. "We send out a lot of lab work because it usually costs less for the owner, but we do a lot here, too," Case-McCorvey says. "It depends on how quickly we need to know the results."
There is an ultrasound unit at Case and a full range of dental care is available. "The only difference with animal dentistry is that it does require anesthesia," Case-McCorvey says. "It’s very important for the animal’s health, like with people."
Endoscopic procedures, including colonoscopies, are performed frequently. "The camera goes through the mouth or the rectum," Case-McCorvey says. "We use it to get biopsies and look for ulcers.
"In small animals, we look for foreign bodies," she says. "In the past, if a pet swallowed something, the only way to remove it was through surgery, which required a large incision. It involved pain medication, at least an overnight stay, antibiotics and an Elizabethan collar when they went home."
The most common objects recovered from pets’ stomachs include peach pits, socks, toys and bones. "Endoscopy is the most rewarding thing," Case-McCorvey says. "We see what they swallowed, grasp it and pull it out, and they’re home in two hours with no pain medication, no antibiotics, no Elizabethan collar."
The hospital even has its own pet -- "Dolly," a fake dog, complete with liver, intestines, stomach and pancreas. Dolly is used for training so vets can develop the hand-eye coordination needed to do procedures. "She’s very special to me," Case-McCorvey says.
When animals are boarded, the cats are kept separate from the dogs.. "We didn’t want the cats to be bored," Case-McCorvey says.
So the Catnasium was installed -- a playground sure to satisfy any kitty. Lazier cats snuggle up in a hanging pouch and sleep, but others make a complete circle of the Catnasium.
The hospital also has its own grooming area, and an in-house laundry room for the huge loads of laundry resulting from a busy veterinary practice.
The hardest part of being a vet is euthanising pets, Case-McCorvey says. "But it’s comforting to know we can let pets go," she says. "It can be a very kind thing to do. Every vet you’ll talk to feels we’re very fortunate to be able to help animals in that way."
On Sept. 19, Case-McCorvey lost her own 15-year-old dog. "I’d had her since I first started dating my husband," she says. "She’d been through everything with us. Now I understand how hard it is to lose a pet."
Case-McCorvey remembers a burly, tattooed trucker who cried when his toy poodle had to be euthanised at age 18. "He said he’d lived with her longer than he had his mother," she says. "That made a very big impression on me."
The veterinary community in Savannah is very close, Case-McCorvey says. Most meetings turn into social occasions, where information is shared and tips are offered. "We’re friends," she says.
A series of events are being held to mark the hospital’s 100th birthday. "We marched in the St. Patrick’s Day parade and won the Chairman’s Award," Case-McCorvey says. "We had an old ambulance and a float with a big birthday cake."
The ambulance driven in the parade isn’t the original one used by Erle, but it does date to the 1930s. "All the parts are 1930 parts," Case says. "It’s very similar to the one my granddad had. We used pictures of the original truck to create the signs and the four-digit phone number my granddad had."
Everyone is very excited about the birthday party, Case-McCorvey says. It will include a teddy bear clinic, where children can bring a favorite toy for treatment. "All veterinary schools do that as part of their open houses," she says.
Up next is the making of a documentary. "We’re doing it for ourselves, for us to have a documentary for our family, and it’s also a history of veterinary medicine," Case-McCorvey says.
If anyone has a memory or story to share about Case Veterinary, especially Francis Case or Erle Case, they are asked to call 352-3081 and speak with Case-McCorvey or hospital administrator Lisa Yackel. Testimonials also will be sought at the birthday party. So far, the family has found no one who remembers Erle. "We only have stories through the family," Case-McCorvey says.
Case Veterinary Hospital is the only veterinary practice worldwide with four successive generations of the family who work there as veterinarians. Case-McCorvey has learned that there are older practices and some with three generations of the same family by checking North American Veterinary Association medical records and contacting organizations worldwide. There are no other four-generation animal hospitals, at least none that have come forward.
It’s a legacy that might be carried through the fifth generation and beyond. "So far, it’s always been the youngest child in the family who becomes a veterinarian," Case-McCorvey says. "And I get to be the first girl!"
Many people are surprised at the amount of study that is required to be a veterinarian. After earning a four-year college degree, there are four years of veterinary school. "It’s not really as extensive as it is to be an MD, but it’s close," Case says.
The application process is difficult, and prospective students work for months on their applications. But for Case, working with animals made it worth the effort.
"I’ve always enjoyed the animals, and, to a lesser extent, the people," he says. "One of the most rewarding parts of my career has been to see the different way people relate to their pets today. The human-animal bond has grown.
"It used to be some people would say, ‘I’ll get a 10-cent bullet and take him out to the woods’ (when euthanasia was needed)," Case says. "Now the clients are more like parents and we’re sort of like pediatricians.
"We have to take case histories from the owners and they may be telling us some good information, but at times they may be misleading us, too. I asked a lady one time if her dog was eating table scraps and she said, ‘Oh, no, I would never do that. I cook for him."
Case Veterinary Hospital’s 100th Birthday Party
Open to two-legged family members, the activities will include face painting, a moon bounce, medical demonstrations, police dog demonstrations, tours and more. The Teddy Bear Hospital will provide repairs performed by the trained stuffed animal surgery team, and birthday cake, hots dogs and more will be served.
When: April 25, 1-4pm.
Where: Case Veterinary Hospital, 111 Eisenhower Dr.
Cost: Free and open to the public.
Info: 352-3081 , www.casevet.com.