Finding Her Calling
Jennifer Hancock had not been outside of Raymond, Mississippi until she ventured to Starkville to begin the Veterinary Technician Program at Mississippi State University. Raised on her grandparents’ farm, Jen’s grandfather steered her to animal care and the experiences that would define her life. “I loved the farm and the animals, but I wanted to do hair and makeup. Sick from lung cancer and barely able to talk, Pawpaw sat me down right before I started college. He said, ‘You can go to cosmetology school any time. You love animals and should be working with them.’ All I could hear was his voice in my head when declaring my major, and I checked off the Applied Science box.” As her grandfather predicted, Jen’s grades came easier when her classes related specifically to animals. “It just resonated with me, and my love for every aspect of veterinary care grew.”
From there, Jen’s path unfolded before her. In 1999 while in Starkville, she met a charming veterinary medicine student named Bob. Marriage followed graduation, and the couple moved to Missouri and then Virginia as Bob pursued veterinary surgery. “We were lucky that I found positions in radiology at the same vet schools where he performed his internship and residency.”
After Bob’s graduation, the couple would once again work together. “Bob was from Algiers and wanted to come back home. “Louisiana Veterinary Referral Center in Mandeville offered us positions, and the Northshore location was close to our families.” Envisioning their bright future, The Hancocks purchased a home in August of 2005. Seven days later, Hurricane Katrina hit compromising the LVRC facility and giving the new employees a trying start. “It was crazy. So many animals needed rescuing and the building was damaged, but we persevered. I was the ICU Supervisor and was later made the Internal Medicine Department Supervisor. We joked that we were fortunate to work together and still enjoy each other’s company at home.”
Now settled in, Jen and Bob felt it was time to expand their family. In 2006, they welcomed Madison to the world. “Bob always wanted a daughter. Years earlier, he even told his mom she’d be named Madison Hancock. He was a planner and knew what he wanted.”
Building the Dream
In early 2010, when LVRC changed ownership, the pair discussed opening a practice. By April 1 of that year, their vision had produced another, albeit very different, wonderful creation. South Paws Veterinary Surgical Specialists was born. “Healing Hands with a Passion for Paws” was their motto. “Bob had high goals for clients, and we both wanted something special for our community. It had to feel comforting for the pets and communication was key to making owners feel at ease.”
South Paws began with just four employees – the Hancocks, an additional vet tech and a hospital manager. They comprised the 24-hour-a-day staff, rotating so that patients were never left alone. “That was difficult with a four-year-old, so we expanded quicker than anticipated. By July we hired a surgery resident and night staff.” As a referral practice, South Paws only sees patients with advanced care or surgical needs referred by their general veterinarians. With that specialized care came specialized technology. “We started with one 2,500 square foot bay. Now, we have four bays, a CT scanner, MRI machine and hyperbaric chamber along with a full rehabilitation department. It’s rare to have that collection of equipment outside of a university setting. Between that and Bob’s enthusiasm and accomplishments, we’ve been featured on some episodes of Pit Bulls and Parolees and WGNO news stories.”
Joys and Sorrows
As the business grew to 34 employees, including two additional surgeons, there was more family time including vacations to Mexico – their favorite destination. “It was total downtime for Bob. We even added a dream pool area to our house with a Mexican theme. Bob would go out there early mornings in his sanctuary preparing for the day.” For their 15th anniversary, Jen wanted only one thing. “Our wedding in Raymond was small, so I wanted to renew our vows. It was a beautiful celebration, and I couldn’t have been happier.”
Just as the Hancocks’ careful planning delivered success, life delivered a surprise. Although not expecting to be a mom again at 40, Jen says that Annabelle was a blessing in disguise. She would stay home to raise her girls and leave the business to Bob.
After Annabelle’s second birthday party, celebration quickly turned to concern when Bob’s difficulty breathing led Jen to call an ambulance. Concern became shock and grief when Jen lost her 43-year-old husband just a week later on Father’s Day morning. “The first year was the most difficult. I could barely get out of bed, but I had two children to care for and wanted to honor his life by keeping his dream alive.” Uncertainty regarding South Paws’ future led to staff seeking other jobs. Jen’s next blow came with COVID. “I would put on scrubs but just couldn’t bring myself to go in. It made me literally sick thinking how it would affect their families, but I eventually had to let 13 people go. Each time I got the willpower to return, I faced another setback. Was God telling me to quit?” But something inside her wouldn’t allow that.
The Power to Heal
The first hopeful sign of recovery was the addition of Dr. Melissa Blakevich. This allowed the practice to now offer dental care and oral surgery. Melissa had worked at South Paws before vet school and knew she wanted to return to honor Bob’s legacy. But, as before, a step forward was met with another setback. With the sudden departure of the hospital’s only remaining general surgeon, Jen was left with few options. However, South Paws’ reputation and philosophy would prove stronger than the overwhelming challenges.
With an outstanding reputation of her own and the ability to dictate her future, Dr. Rose Lemarié came to the rescue. In 2000, Dr. Rose co-founded Southeast Veterinary Specialists in Metairie where she was Head of Surgery. That practice was eventually bought by a corporate operation. Familiar with South Paws, Dr. Rose told Jen she could have continued working under the new ownership, but she was eager to work in a more personal atmosphere giving individualized attention — and Jen was thrilled to have her.
Never Give Up
“The team of 12 we have now is so positive and inviting. I just want to let everyone know we’re here continuing the important work that Bob started. I’ve fought to improve myself since I was back on the farm, and I’ll continue to do so. I see the purpose in many things now – this team is excellent and enthusiastic. Annabelle is a joy that keeps me going, and Madison is so like her father. I still have yet to find purpose in Bob’s passing…” And as if on cue, Annabelle charges in showering Jen with energy, questions and toys, immediately lightening the mood.
As for Madison, who with maturity beyond her years has listened to Jen recount the family’s joys and losses, she enthusiastically declares her intent to follow in her father’s footsteps. “I have to keep the business going until she takes it over,” smiles Jen. “And the family needs to remain strong and happy too. I’m taking the girls to Mexico for the first time without Bob. I’m nervous, but I’m doing it. My biggest lesson in all of this is never give up.”
Jennifer Hancock, RVT is the owner of South Paws Veterinary Specialists, located at 2631 N. Causeway Boulevard in Mandeville. For more information, please call 985-809-1590 or visit southpawsvet.com.
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