Updated: Jan 2
One Year After Opening New Clinic, Dr. Thea Fransen Reflects on Career of Care
"Some little girls plan their weddings; I've always kept a little notebook about what I wanted my vet clinic to look like."
Now more than twenty years into a career of veterinary medicine, last year Dr. Thea Fransen saw her dreams come true with the opening of an expansive new clinic for Companion Animal Hospital. The $1.5 million project broke ground in April of 2021 and opened its doors before Christmas of the same year. Today, she recounts the journey that led her here – the celebrations as well as the things that didn't go to plan.
"The first day was hard," she says, "I think we thought it was going to be exciting and fun – and it felt very strange. To thrive in veterinary medicine, you want to feel on top of your game, and it didn't feel that way for the first time."
Fransen says the story of her career isn't what people hope. No, she didn't spend her childhood imagining life as a vet some day. She loved animals, but she assumed everyone else felt the same. Instead, she planned to follow in her father's footsteps and become an attorney.
"That's what smart kids did," she says.
When her father sat her down and lovingly explained she lacked the assertiveness that a career in law demanded, she had to adapt. If she couldn't be a lawyer, she'd be a doctor. By the time she was a sophomore in college, however, something was still amiss. She loved working in medicine, but working with people as patients didn't ignite her passion. So she changed degrees, falling back on her instinctive love for animals.
"It's easy to have empathy for animals," Fransen says, "because they find themselves in situations they didn't create. They need me to help them."
She emerged from college in 2001 with DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) in hand and practiced for two years in St. Cloud while living a 30-minute commute away, nearer to the Twin Cities. Fransen told herself things were well enough, but an unexpected phone call threw everything into the air. It was Dr. David Nelson, who had opened a veterinary practice in Fergus Falls twenty years earlier. Nelson, incidentally, had been a neighbor to Fransen growing up. She had served as babysitter to his children, and he cared for the Svingen family pets.
Nelson had recently lost his associate veterinarian and needed someone he could depend on. He had heard Fransen was practicing in the St. Cloud area and imagined that just maybe she would return home to Fergus Falls and family.
"I was very pregnant," Fransen recalls with a laugh, "and I didn't think I was unhappy in my current job, so I politely declined."
She told Nelson that it wouldn't work out anyway, as she was expecting a child and would be on maternity leave for a time. He told her he was thinking a little longer-term but accepted her decision.
When Fransen set down the phone, her husband asked about the conversation. Hearing she had refused, he reminded her that she hated her job and cried every night – besides, he got along well with her parents and wouldn't mind bringing their young family back home to her family.
So, in May of 2003, Dr. Thea Fransen made the one-and-only job hop of her veterinary career.
A Certain Type
Fransen says it takes a certain type of person to thrive as a veterinarian. Most know from a young age that they want to work with animals, though there are exceptions like herself. Once, several years ago, a student intern was tasked as part of her coursework to write a paper on the qualities of a good veterinarian. The young woman had written that veterinarians should be "methodical, perfectionist," and "really smart." Fransen told her this was all well, "but they need to be like MacGyver – you need to know what to do when you can't read it in the textbook," she explained.
It's a challenging field with a high rate of burnout. A 2015 summary published in the National Library of Medicine posited that veterinarians have a suicide rate double the average for other medical practitioners and four times the rate of the general population. Fransen says most veterinarians are introverts who bond better with animals than humans but are nevertheless people pleasers and born problem solvers.
"People always say euthanasias must be the hardest part of [the] job, and I don't think that's true for any of us," Fransen says. "The animals are suffering, and we want to help them. It's not our favorite, but we wouldn't want to not do it."
No, the hardest part is finding a healthy work-life balance.
"The pet population has boomed. Veterinarians are quitting or cutting back hours in droves," she explains. "Which forces us to either work more or say 'no' to people – and we hate that."
But Companion Animal Hospital is defying the odds, growing, and attracting compassionate, professional new talent.
A Light at the End
Fransen worked under Dr. Nelson for nearly 15 years at the business' original facility near the former KMart building. She describes Nelson as a terrific mentor and a great person. When he decided to retire five years ago, she bought the business, but it was clear already the facility and staff were being stretched beyond capacity.
"We were literally crawling on top of each other over there," she says.
She brought in a second veterinarian, and three years later a third. The number of support staff also grew to keep pace. It reached such a point that employee parking was moved to the nearby KMart parking lot. The team was temporarily forced to refuse new clients in hopes of meeting existing demand – though today the clinic is happy and able to see new clients.
"And that's when it was abundantly clear [that we needed more space]," Fransen says.
She had a notebook of ideas for a new vet clinic, but it was one thing to imagine and something else to execute. A friend recommended she reach out to Greater Fergus Falls (GFF) for guidance, and Fransen went into the meeting with no idea what to expect.
"Veterinarians don't get business degrees," she jokes, "and that's what [GFF does]: They bring the business and the public relations sense that I was never taught."
Fransen says Greater Fergus Falls helped her come up with a plan and find a location and a lender. What she learned in the process, she believes, could help her be encouragement and support for the next business owner looking to make the leap.
"They were more than cheerleaders. They helped me look at what I had—and what was available and what was planned—and were the ones that said, 'This seems really doable, and here's how you're going to go about it.'"
She selected a 1.4 acre site on Western Avenue, and the $1.5 million project broke ground in spring of 2021. She had purchased the property in 2020, as construction costs inflated at an incredible pace, but none of that weakened her resolve.
"We couldn't stay," she recalls. "It didn't matter that costs were going up; we could not continue to operate out of a clinic that small."
As the structure took shape, Fransen says her staff enjoyed watching the new facility come together. For her, however, it was a light at the end of the tunnel; it was seeing something made real that she had known for years in her imagination.
Furry Friends and a Future
The opening wasn't simple. There was excitement—both from staff and the public—but there was also fear and uncertainty. Whatever the failings of the smaller facility, Fransen had spent 18 years learning the ins-and-outs of that building and her process. If there was an emergency, she could hear and respond without delay – saving precious time during critical moments.
Veterinarians perform best, she says, when everything can be done by muscle memory, when there's no need to recall "how" or "where." During the first days of the new building's opening, Fransen missed the tight, small group she had been part of in the old building. It had all been almost seamless.
Looking around at the new clinic and with a little time, however, those worries faded. The new space offers more than double the room inside and added several times the parking area. The single surgery room of old is replaced with a sleek, modern space that can host several surgeries at once if needed. There's new equipment—both installed and arriving soon—that means new procedures (like dental x-rays) can be offered. There are many more visiting rooms than before, and there's even a dedicated room for cats – to offer privacy away from the noise and smell of dogs and other animals (the room, of course, features a window for catnaps and themed decorations and toys).
A living room-like space with tasteful and comfortable furniture and décor offers families a warm and respectful environment for euthanasias as well as a calming and less-clinical ambience for animal acupuncture. There are fenced-in play areas outdoors, an expanded pet boarding facility, and a host of other "little, common-sense things," Fransen says, that make a big difference. She says the positive growth of her business comes at a time when she sees the community itself is growing and making impactful changes.
And she's not stopping anytime soon. Fransen has big ideas for the future of Companion Animal Hospital. She wants to expand the services offered and seek out more advanced certifications (such as a "Fear Free" certification or the prestigious American Animal Hospital Association accreditation).
The clinic will also add a fourth veterinarian next July.
In a notoriously challenging profession, Fransen is continuing to thrive after more than twenty years at work, and she's leading her business and team to a scale that is unprecedented in the company's more-than-40-year history. She's working hard to pass that same passion and dedication on to the next generation, just as her mentor did for her. Because, at the end of the day, veterinary medicine is a career of compassion and the hope of making a difference. For Fransen, it's a career where a bunch of animal-loving introverts come to appreciate just how much the people in their lives mean as well.
"I feel like I've been blessed to have this staff that I love – more than staff," Fransen says, visibly moved. "And then I've had these clients, and it's just fun to be able to do it for them." Looking to the past and future, she says simply, "I love what I do."
- R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls
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