Jordan had just finished a difficult surgery, the last of the day. He was tired, his scrubs were soiled with blood and hair, and his patience was fleeing. Since he was not fit to be seen by man or animal, he had every intention of turning a deaf ear to whatever was happening. He started to retreat further from the front office area, when the door to reception opened and Torrey Hansen, his office manager, hailed him. “Doctor, we need you in the front, right now, Mr. Gardner has a problem with his bill.”
“Well, take care of his problem,” Jordan retorted, gritting his teeth to restrain his frustration. “That’s your responsibility – I just do the dirty work around here.”
“You don’t understand,” Torrey insisted. “He claims he can’t afford to pay such an outrageous amount – his words, not mine – but he insists on taking his cat, Clementine, home with him today. Since it’s your policy that pets can’t be released until the bill is paid, you need to deal with this.”
Harnessing his diminishing patience, Jordan walked through another door, directly into the cat waiting area. The Cat Pit, as it was named, was separated from the Dog Pound by the horseshoe-shaped counter behind which the front office staff worked. He barely glanced toward the three canines that were being ineffectively shushed by their owners.
Old man Gardner, aged and white-haired, wore faded khakis and a much-washed red flannel shirt. The shirt hung on his spare frame, causing Jordan to think of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
Waving a piece of paper, Gardner rushed Jordan as he entered. “I can’t afford to pay this – this outrageous bill,” he sputtered. “Your father never charged rates like this, and he wouldn’t hold Clementine hostage for payment, either. You may be an excellent vet, but you aren’t half the human being your father was.”
Jordan wondered why he stayed in private practice; certainly there were fewer headaches and more money to be made working in government or research. He felt his irritation level escalating. He was going to lose his temper and yell at a senior citizen – just what his image needed.
“Mr. Gardner,” he replied, holding himself stiffly, “while it’s true that, when I took over my father’s practice, I altered rates and policies, these actions were required to cover my overhead and stay in business.” Why did he even feel it necessary to justify himself to this old man?
Before Jordan could continue his lecture, a staff member he didn’t recognize interrupted him. True, his office manager, Torrey, did most of the hiring and firing, but this young woman didn’t look old enough to be a veterinary assistant. She was petite, barely reaching the middle of his chest. Her russet hair was bound in two braids – pigtails, he thought they were called. Freckles dotted her nose, and she wore a yellow smock decorated with puppies and kittens.
“Doctor, I think you’re needed in surgery,” she said, touching his hand as if to get his attention. “If I may, I’ll assist Mr. Gardner. I think we might have failed to apply the senior discount, which is why the bill is so high.”
Senior discount? Jordan disregarded the spark that surged through him at the touch of her hand. I haven’t approved any senior discount. But hey, if this little Heidi character thinks she can bring peace and quiet to the clinic, I’ll let her try.
Jordan retreated through the door to the rear, his temper simmering but his dignity intact. Peering through a crack, he watched the new veterinary assistant take Mr. Gardner gently by the hand and lead him back to the seating area.
“You wait here, and I’ll bring Clementine to you,” she said. “I’ll ask the cashier to recalculate your charges after applying the senior discount. If the bill is still too high for you to pay at once, we’ll arrange a payment plan. You won’t need to worry about that today – you can take Clementine home and we’ll mail you the bill.”
Jordan continued to spy through the door while this unknown employee demolished all his established fiscal practices, one by one.
“I thought young Dr. Walker didn’t approve of payment plans,” Gardner retorted. “He’s a cold-hearted bastard – pardon my language, miss – but he makes me angry.”
“He did manage to heal Clementine for you, and she was seriously ill. So he can’t be all rotten, can he?” she asked, squeezing his hand. “Just wait here and I’ll be right back,”
After Gardner and Clementine had departed the clinic, Jordan poked his head into the staff area and asked Torrey to join him in the back.
“Who is this little Heidi look-alike who intervened between Gardner and me?” he asked as soon as she appeared. ”How long has she been working here? I don’t recall having seen her before.”
“Her name is Kathleen Morelli – Kat to her colleagues. She’s been with us just over a week. She’s a sweet girl.”
“Are you certain she’s legally old enough to work?”
“Of course she is,” Torrey answered with a laugh. “She has excellent credentials. She graduated from State with an AVMA approved degree as a veterinary technician. She has NAVTA certification, and she worked for Jim Foley in Ft. Collins before she came here. You just haven’t met her yet because you were gone all last week. Don’t worry, I’ll introduce you.”
“That might be a smart idea since I am paying her salary. Give me time to clean up, then bring her to my office.”
A few minutes later, Torrey introduced Kat to Jordan, who sat stiffly erect behind his desk, doing his best to look uncompromising. His space was designed to enforce a feeling of intimidation. The oversize desk was mahogany. A matching credenza behind him held his computer. Large, heavy bookcases stood across from the desk, and two uncomfortable visitor chairs rested in front of the bookcases.
Jordan had washed up, sprinkled on some cologne, combed his hair, and disposed of the surgical bonnet and booties he’d been wearing when he rushed into the waiting area. In a clean lab coat, he knew he looked the part of a successful medical professional.
When Kat was seated in the chair in front of him, Jordan looked at her for the first time – really looked. He found himself sinking into her deep blue eyes. They were like gemstones, the color of a glacier lake, and he was spellbound. He couldn’t remember ever having seen eyes that color blue.
“Well, Ms. Morelli, that was a timely intervention you made,” he said abruptly. “However, I’m not certain how you think we should resolve the problem. You are aware, are you not, that I don’t have a senior discount policy at this clinic?”
“Well, you should have.” She straightened her back and glared, a force five tornado assaulting Mount Rushmore. “Old people living on pensions can’t afford high prices. Frequently, their pets are the only family they have, the only ones who care about them. Sometimes seniors are forced to choose between feeding themselves and taking care of their animals.”
“And this should concern me . . . why?” Jordan’s voice dripped with sarcasm.
He saw a look of disgust on her face. His attitude had shocked her. He wasn’t certain why he cared, but suddenly he didn’t want this pert young woman to think badly of him. Maybe he’d see what arrangements could be made to reduce Mr. Gardner’s bill. He would also ask Torrey if the clinic now could provide some sort of ongoing senior discount policy. They had moved financially into the black, after all.
“I’ll consider your suggestions, Ms. Morelli,” he replied, hiding a smile. “You do surprise me, though. You’re a brand new employee and yet you contest my policies. Torrey is the only person working here who’s ever had the nerve to lecture me. I hope this won’t become a habit.”