Farewell to a beloved veterinarian

Credit: Special to the AJC

Credit: Special to the AJC

Wesley Chapel Animal Hospital closing its doors after 50 years

“I’ll let you know when you can retire,” I told Dr. Ronald Bickley, my vet of 44 years.

That was just over a year ago. Forget that he was 74 years old. I’d let him know when it was time when all of my cats and dogs were gone and there were no more to be had. He laughed hard as he finished running a flea comb through my cat’s fur.

His husband, Stephen Thompson, his “reluctant vet tech” for 30 years, laughed with us, as did his real vet tech of 20 years, Julius Rudolph. The four of us laughed the preposterous idea of Dr. Bickley’s retirement right out of the room.

Then in the summer, Dr. Bickley threw a 75th birthday party for himself at the old Decatur courthouse. The place was filled with friends and clients who had been with him for decades. There was music from the 1960s, libations, dancing, barbecue, and strangers hugging strangers and seeing who could outdo whom with the best Dr. Bickley pet story. It was a happy day. No one uttered the word “retirement.” But even amid the music and the laughter, you could sense the possibility that this was more than a birthday party; you could see a little worry and sadness in pet owners’ eyes even as they lifted toast after toast to him. Like barometric pressure dropping, there was a sense that a change was coming, that Dr. Bickley’s retirement might, in fact, be just around the corner. And, of course, it was.

Ronald A. Bickley, DVM, opened Wesley Chapel Animal Hospital on Jan. 3, 1973. On Jan. 3, 2023, 50 years to the day, with sadness and with gratitude, he will close its doors.

When Dr. Bickley opened his practice in 1973, you could get your dog’s annual examination and vaccinations for $3. We know this because a client who has been with him for 50 years brought in his first receipt, which Dr. Bickley framed.

Dr. Bickley opened other veterinary hospitals at different times, all in more affluent areas than Wesley Chapel. But Wesley Chapel was home. He has a diverse and loyal staff. Kim Landon, his office manager, has been with him the longest. Kim didn’t hesitate to give me a good – and ultimately appreciated – tongue lashing when I put flea medicine for a 20-pound cat on the little scruffy dehydrated and starved 4 pounds of stray that I’d just brought home from the Avondale MARTA Station platform.

“You know you could have killed him,” she told me. She took four-month-old Charlie from me and headed to Dr. Bickley, where Charlie would be in better hands. We laughed heartily about it recently, 20 years after the fact, as Charlie and I were settling our bill.

You can’t pin Dr. Bickley down on any of the most memorable moments of his 50 years at Wesley Chapel Animal Hospital. But there are a couple that can’t help but stand out on their own – like the woman years ago who brought her dog to see Dr. Bickley because it wouldn’t eat. The dog was dead. Had been for about three days. The story gets better – or worse, I guess – but I’m not brave enough to write it here.

The one he likes best, I think, is the one so representative of so many others. A father brought his young son in with a new puppy 30 years ago. The puppy and the boy grew up together, and the boy accompanied the dog on every visit to Wesley Chapel Animal Hospital. The dog had a long, good life of being well cared for and well-loved by the boy who was now a young man. The day came to say goodbye – the young man, the old dog, Dr. Bickley, and his staff. Kim said it was hard to know who cried the most, especially since they all still cry when they think about that dog and that boy who became the young man. But recently, she says, the young man returned to Wesley Chapel Animal Hospital with his own son and his son’s new puppy.

It’s interesting. When you lose a cat or a dog that you love, it’s a special kind of grief. No two people’s grief is ever the same. When Charlie the cat and I were there with Dr. Bickley, possibly seeing him for the last time, there was a pang of grief that I knew was just ours – mine, Dr. Bickley’s, his staff’s – for all those pets of mine that we have nurtured and some that we have lost. Other pet owners’ grief will be just as profound when they tell Dr. Bickley goodbye.

But the one thing we will have in common is an understanding, a knowing, that our lives and our pets’ lives have been made better by Dr. Ronald A. Bickley. With hearts momentarily sad yet full of gratitude, we say thank you and goodbye, and may your Chapter 2 be all that Chapter 1 was and more.

Credit: Mark Najjar

Credit: Mark Najjar

Nancy Luana Wilkes grew up and lives in Decatur. She has a journalism degree from Georgia State University. After a 40-year “school sabbatical,” she recently received her Master of Fine Arts degree in writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She is a contract administrator by day and a writer of creative nonfiction by night.