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Veterinarian on wheels

A Beach Park vet makes house calls to more than 500 pet owners, saving them the hassle of driving to a clinic.

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

[Times photos: Ken Helle]
Dr. Maria Miller carries Daisy Mae, a 4-month-old English springer spaniel, to her mobile veterinary clinic. Miller bought the van when she moved from Arizona to Tampa in 1999.
BEACH PARK -- Near 8:30 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, Dr. Maria Miller stops in the driveway of a home with a view of Tampa Bay. She spots her young patient, a springer spaniel puppy that jumps up and down at the door.

"That's Daisy Mae," Miller says. "She really loves me."

Springer spaniel No. 2, Dixie Belle, keeps a lower profile, lagging backing in the house. Nearly 12, Dixie Belle feels her age, slowed by arthritis and skin troubles.

"She has a lot of problems," owner Belinda Glover says.

Fortunately for Daisy Mae and Dixie Belle, their veterinarian makes house calls.

In minutes, Miller and her assistant, technician Lisa Beebe, will settle 4-month-old Daisy Mae on an exam table for her last set of puppy shots.

The convenience suits Glover just fine.

"I have trouble enough driving in Tampa traffic with one dog," says Glover, who moved to Tampa from Memphis 18 months ago. "Can you see me trying to do it with two?"

People with small kids, large dogs or clinic-shy cats make up most of Miller's clientele. They pay $20 to $30 extra for a house call, atop the $28 Miller charges for an exam.

Miller practices in a specially equipped Dodge mobile veterinary clinic -- a 24-foot van outfitted for radiology, anesthesia and EKGs.

Between house calls the van labeled "Vet Calls" sits in the shady driveway of Miller's white frame bungalow in the neighborhood of Mid-Peninsula, between Beach Park and Dale Mabry Highway. Green silhouettes represent her patients -- dogs, cats, even the occasional ferret.

Miller bought the mobile unit after she and her husband, Thomas Brunner, moved to Tampa in 1999 from her native Tucson.

The investment paid off.

Within a year and a half, her clientele grew to more than 500 pet owners.

A variety of cases fill her appointment book.

Routine vaccinations are the norm, along with tests for heartworms and other parasites, but some calls are more involved.

Recently, in one trip, she removed a tumor from a bichon frise, cleaned its teeth and trimmed its nails.

Some days, there's enough down time to treat her own seven pets.

Her cats -- Neva, Katie, Clifford, Speck and Owen -- were all strays she took into the fold.

Her dogs include Kiva, a 100-pound Rhodesian ridgeback, and Bella, a 7-year-old German shepherd mix she adopted while practicing in Elgin, Ill.

"Bella was an abused dog," Miller says, "and one of the reasons I advocate adoption from the humane society. Giving a dog a second chance will often provide you with an outstanding companion."

Assistant Lisa Beebe, left, and veterinarian Maria Miller.
One patient Miller fondly remembers was a cat that, according to its elderly owner, needed an "immediate examination." The cat hadn't used his litter box for two weeks. Rousing Fluffy from under the bed, Miller gave him a thorough physical in the mobile clinic. No problems found.

"The cat," she says, "was a normal and very healthy specimen. As soon as we re-entered the house, Fluffy shot out of my arms and took off to the back of the house."

She watched him squeeze through a tiny hole in the screened back porch.

Diagnosis: Fix the screen and he'll use his box.

Miller, since childhood, has felt a connection to animals. Her father, now retired, was a dermatologist and she shared his knack for science.

But she was raised with dogs, cats, ducks, birds and horses.

She felt more empathy toward four-footed creatures.

"My father and mother were my biggest mentors," Miller says. "Still are. They always told me that I could, and would, be successful in any field I chose to enter."

She trained at the University of Georgia in Athens, then practiced in Illinois for a year at a 24-hour, 17-doctor practice with an internist and surgeon on staff. She returned home to Tucson to work exclusively emergency cases.

She practiced briefly at permanent clinics in St. Petersburg and Tampa before plunging into the mobile practice, which seems to be a hit.

"I liked the way she got right down on the floor and bonded with Dixie the first time they met," says Glover.

Though she goes to great lengths to keep animals alive, Miller enthuses over at-home euthanasia.

Miller, checking Daisy Mae's eyes in her traveling clinic, charges her clients $20 to $30 in addition to her $28 exam fee for a house call.
She calls it the biggest service she offers her clients.

"Being in the home environment takes some of the stress off the patient and the client," she says. "No stressful car rides, no waiting in the exam room, and the client can freely express their emotions without embarrassment."

Sheila Curtis appreciates the opportunity.

One of her three Doberman pinschers, 16, is too weak to stand, though in no apparent pain.

Curtis' eyes fill as she tells Miller she'll call when it's time to let go.

"It's a quality of life issue," Miller says later, at home. "We're all hoping Mr. Astro will just drift off in his sleep."

But for now, there are less somber needs.

The phone rings. Miller answers.

She listens as a woman begins, "I have a Maltese terrier and something's bothering his ears."

-- Mobile veterinarian Maria Miller can be reached at 839-9373.

Maria Miller

  • OCCUPATION: Mobile veterinarian.
  • BIRTHPLACE: Tucson, Ariz.
  • AGE: 32
  • NUMBER OF HUSBANDS: One, Thomas Brunner.
  • HOME: 1,700 square feet in South Tampa.
  • IF SHE WERE A DOG: "I would definitely be a golden retriever."
  • IF SHE WERE A CAT: "A domestic shorthair, mixed."
  • IF NOT A VET: "There's just nothing else."
  • HOBBY: Gardening. She has 28 species of palm.
  • ALSO: Horseback riding, bike riding, yoga, running.
  • WHAT SHE READS: Mystery novels.

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