How this Lady Beat Adversity, then Built a Business.
Updated: Mar 16, 2018
When you think you’ve had a rough road, it’s sometimes comforting to know someone else had it rougher. While I’m not a fan of comparing myself to others, there are times when doing so helps to put things into perspective and to provide that little nudge to keep me going.
This story starts where every good story does, in Tanzania. Dr. Jessica Torok, she likes to go by Jess, was giving back her time in what she figured would be her last opportunity to do so before she opened her first veterinary practice, Urban Veterinary Associates, back in the United States - Westmont, Illinois. Jess was in Tanzania doing mission work for a U.K. based organization, Mission Rabies.
There, where “pet” dogs run wild along with other animals, rabies are rampant and they are often infecting humans during frequent, but less than friendly encounters. Due to the high costs of post-exposure prophylaxis (for us laypeople, that means medicine after you’ve been infected - yes, I looked it up) and a general lack of affordability for medicine and vaccines by the Tanzanian inhabitants, Jess and her fellow volunteers were there to pre-empt the need by administering vaccines to as much of the localized animal population as possible. Quick - when was the last time you tried to corral an animal you didn’t know, in a foreign country over 8,000 miles away and stick a needle into it?
What was supposed to be a two week mission, turned into a month long battle for her own life. Half way through her efforts in Tanzania, Jess finished for the evening after a long day with a pounding headache. Within in an hour of resting in her hotel room, Jess lost her vision. That’s the last thing she remembered for the next four days. She had suffered a brain aneurysm.
Jess was rushed to a local hospital, but they were not equipped to stop the bleeding that was occurring in her brain. They subsequently airlifted her to a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya where she would spend the next month in a hospital bed fighting to survive. Though the surgery she underwent was successful, Jess had suffered a stroke leaving the entire left side of her body temporarily paralyzed. There she was, just a few months away from opening her first business venture, lying in a hospital bed in a foreign country with a real uncertainty of how she would be able to live out the rest of her days.
A month later, Jess made it back to the States where she would undergo intense physical therapy to regain the use of the left side of her body. Remember, she still has a business she is starting… With that thought still squarely on her mind, Jess would incorporate her veterinarian skills into her physical therapy routines, holding and manipulating surgical tools - literally, suturing things together so that when she made a full recovery she’d be able to conduct her startup business as intended.
“I can do it better”
How did I get Here…
Jess’ journey to starting her own veterinary business began long before the events unfolded in Africa. It started admirably, in the United States Navy. Jess began serving the United States as a medical technician in her duties with the Navy. She loved it. It was during an actual surgery while Jess was in the room serving in her capacity as a technician observing the surgeon that she had one those epiphany moments. She said to herself, I can do it better.
That moment would set Jess toward an unrelenting goal of attaining an education and credentials she needed to become a surgeon. She directed her focus not in human medicine, but in the animal kingdom. This is where she had a passion - helping animals that ultimately provide happiness to so many families each day all over the world.
Jess admits, “I love getting to know the families who own the animals we treat each day. I truly enjoy seeing the happy faces of the little ones when their pet emerges from our treatment rooms healthy and into the arms of their family.”
After her duty with the Navy, Jess would go on to complete her education at Purdue University and become the first Purdue Vet grad awarded an internship at her Alma Mater. Jess’ first foray into veterinary practice was with a private clinic where she ultimately became medical director. Deep down, she had always wanted to own her own practice and had built a solid foundation with the proprietor of the clinic at which she was serving. They had discussed her buying that business once he retired, but as time went on, the owner had trouble letting go (and retiring). Jess would move on to serve as medical director in two more notable corporate veterinary organizations before realizing she wasn’t getting the opportunity to provide that personal level of care she knew was vital to ensuring a deep-rooted, successful business within the local community.
“Our mission is to provide profoundly personalized pet care”
Hitting the Objectives
Jess began building her plan for opening up her own practice. She kept the core principals she wanted instilled in her new business at the forefront of her strategy - community, personal relationships and high quality veterinary service. Jess has made it a priority to succeed by doing what most of her counterparts will not. An example? She practices orthopedic surgery on site. That means Jess and her team get down to the skeletal level of things - repairing bones, tendons, ligaments and all those important moving parts that keep your little ball of fur mobile and you on the go.
Jess and her team keep the latest cutting edge technology on hand. Jess says, “I wanted to buy the best equipment out there so we can be more efficient for our patients and their families, even if it makes my accountant cringe. We want to set ourselves apart from the competition who aren’t willing to spend the extra dollars on technology.” Another timely note she adds for anyone out there starting up a business, “expect it to cost more than you planned for.”
“Our mission is to provide profoundly personalized pet care”, says Jess. In keeping with
this focus, the Urban Veterinary Associates team gets involved within the community.
You’ll find them with a table and snacks at just about every public community event Westmont puts on throughout the year. I personally just saw them marching in the annual Holiday parade this November. You truly get a warm welcome when you walk in the doors of their new location from the entire team. “We want people to feel welcomed, comfortable and like a part of the family when they walk in our front door”, says Jess.
If the extracurricular activities are not enough to prove their commitment to their immediate surroundings, Jess and her team are doing it with their economic incentives as well. They offer discounts to active military and veterans, senior citizens and first-responders. Show up on Wednesdays and get discounts on vaccines, too.
Growing the Business
As with any new venture, growing it is often the hardest initial challenge. Jess suggests one of the most important pieces to the puzzle is surrounding yourself with people you can trust and building strong relationships.
She stresses constant evolution and honing your craft, whatever that may be, is critical to being successful. The Urban Veterinary team plans to undergo new training and certifications on a regular basis. Most recently, they obtained a somewhat rare certification in their industry, Fear Free, which emphasizes incorporating best practices for alleviating fear and stress some animals (and their owners) encounter when visiting the veterinarian.
Jess is also wearing many hats, as most founders do, working on things like SEO for her company website, writing relevant blogs, public engagements, managing her awesome team, growing traction, paying bills, etc…etc… All while not to forget how to perform a mandibular condylectomy, but only after intimately checking the articulation and anatomy of the temporomandibular joints. Uh, what…? Look it up.
At the end of day, Jess can look back on what she’s overcome to get to where she is now. She can be grateful for the life experiences that challenged her sheer survival, but she won’t rest. Her plans for business growth don’t stop with just one Urban Veterinary Associates location. It’s just the first of many on Jess’ crusade to reshape an industry she’s passionate enough about to have faced adversity and win.
About Urban Veterinary Associates
Urban Veterinary Associates' location can be found at:
35 N Cass Avenue, Westmont, IL 60559
Here's a picture of it - you can't miss it.
Written by Matt Scales
A commercial real estate broker who focuses on working with companies who are growing by helping them find new workspace so they can continue doing awesome things. Learn More.