Jack Is Back With Skeeter

Jack Stephens discusses how the human-animal bond he had with his dogs has impacted his life in a positive way.

Dr. Jack Stephens is one of our profession's most deeply bonded veterinarians, an icon in the pet health insurance industry and a 15-year cancer survivor.

He graduated from Missouri in the early '70s but it was during his cancer treatments in 1990 that Jack came to realize the intrinsic value and healing power of the human-animal bond.

Jack witnessed the loyalty and companionship of Spanky, one of his wife's miniature Pinschers. Jack aligned himself with his own big dogs but it was little Spanky who stayed at his bedside during six months of his cancer therapy and recuperation.

"Spanky was the catalyst for my focusing on something else besides the cancer," Jack said.

"He wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself. Without any words, Spanky just knew when I needed him to come and be affectionate and he knew when I needed him to keep his distance and give me space.

"He would simply sit off a distance and watch me. He knew my needs and moods.

"There were days I didn't think I had the strength to brush my teeth, but his persistent nagging for a walk would get me outside, so that I remained part of the world around me.

"Spanky was such a devoted pet. He entertained my wife and me so we could have time away from the constant focus of my illness. He made me feel better by keeping me active and preoccupied."

After Spanky passed, little Skeeter took over as Jack's constant companion. Jack and his wife, Vicki, started The Skeeter Foundation to promote the healing power of pets by visiting hospitals. In February, Jack celebrated Skeeter's 13th birthday at the Western Veterinary Conference.

Jack was a successful general practitioner when he answered the call from the late Don Mahan, the legendary executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Assn.

In 1981, Don asked Jack to head a task force to explore pet insurance. Jack wanted to put an end to "economic euthanasia" when people could not afford medical care for their pets. He sold his practice and pursued the field with a full-time, whole-hearted commitment.

He founded Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) and steered the company through very rough times. The company was teetering on failure when Jack had to battle his cancer.

The first lesion appeared on his tongue and was removed. Six months later, Jack had a persistent sore throat. He was not alarmed at first, but after a month of treatment with no improvement, he knew something was wrong.

Further tests, including an MRI, discovered that Jack had stage T4 oral cancer that had metastasized to his tonsil. Surgeons advised Jack to have a section of his jaw and part or all of his tongue removed along with a radical neck resection.

With that treatment, he would lose the ability to speak and have to settle for a voice box and a mandibulectomy in order to survive.

This was 1990 and Jack was all but holding the sky up over VPI when he was told that he had less than a year to live.

VPI had survived a decade of growing pains and setbacks but it was in real jeopardy due to under capitalization. Jack was dealing with these serious issues with no time to spare when cancer struck.

It was during this frantic decision-making period that Jack and Vicki called me one morning.

From the conversation, it was obvious that Jack and Vicki dreaded the thought and consequences of glossectomy and mandibulectomy. They did not want any part of this radical surgery.

I told them about brachytherapy. It was a viable option that could spare his tongue and mandible while addressing the cancer.

Brachytherapy involves the placement of short-range radioactive beads into the tumor and surrounding tissues. The beads are placed surgically under anesthesia and remain for several days during a specified period of hospitalization.

Since I had worked and studied radiation oncology at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical School for 10 years before opening a radiation therapy facility at my hospital, I knew radiation dosimetrists who could give me referrals for Jack.

My fist call was to our staff dosimetrist. She said that she did dosimetry for several brachytherapists and recommended an excellent one at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.

I called Jack and Vicki back and urged him to get a consultation as soon as possible.

It has now been 15 years, and I am very happy to report that Jack took my advice instead of following the recommendations of the 14 surgeons who urged him to have radical surgery.

Today, Jack is a long-term cancer survivor who truly believes in the healing power of the human-animal bond.

Those of us who know and love Jack Stephens are happy to see him back again at the trade shows with Skeeter.

He is now at the helm of Pets Best, a new pet health insurance company.

In the 1980s, Jack rallied the support of colleagues (including me) around the country. Many veterinarians became founding shareholders of VPI. Veterinarians who supported and invested with Jack Stephens believed in his vision.

With dauntless determinism over two decades, Jack led VPI to storybook success. Jack promised that pet insurance would not dictate professional fees, and over 20 years, he kept that promise.

Today, it is well accepted that pet insurance potentiates both pet owners and veterinarians.

Apparently, Jack's loyalty to founding shareholders became a point of disagreement with VPI's upper management. I think that, besides management style and software challenges, the main problem was overvaluation and liquidity for the founding (minority) shareholders.

Jack always felt that the founding shareholders deserved a fair market valuation to be paid out when the time was right or when the company sold. It is my opinion that this was the real reason for Jack's ouster.

It is great to see Jack back! Happy 13th birthday to Skeeter!

For more information, visit www.petsbest.com or call 877-PETS BEST (738-7237).

If you are a VPI shareholder interested in the fair-market valuation and liquidity of your shares, call Dennis P. Drent, VPI president and chief executive officer, at 800-USA PETS.

The American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians has an alliance with AAHA! Long Beach 2006.

Human-animal bond topics will be presented on Monday, March 20, at the organization's annual convention.

Speakers include Dr. Greg Ogilvie, Dr. Trent Newcomer and yours truly.

See you there! For information, visit www.aahanet.org.

Dr. Villalobos is president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and is on the editorial review board of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She may be contacted at dralicev@aol.com.

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