Heidi hopes you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and wants you to know she had fun eating Pup-eroni sticks with her friend Layla the Labrador mix in Culver City on Turkey Day (with a little taste of the bird, too). Heidi doesn’t have Pup-eroni on her treat list at home, so this experience was most chewy and exciting. Special thanks to for being willing to share her water bowl, and for putting up with bratty Heidi’s insistence on a peeing match outside the house before heading home (anywhere you can go, she can go better).
Meanwhile – since we assume you will continue to be thankful throughout the weekend, unless of course you went shopping on – Heidi wanted me to tell you about a person she is very thankful to know: Her veterinarian, Dr. Erica Heim, medical director of in North Hollywood.
I’m guessing my husband Alan and I met Dr. Heim about six months ago. Heidi has been a patient at Best Friends for much longer than that, but had always seen whatever doctor was available at appointment time, and we liked them all. We were not surprised to see a new face appear in the examining room.
But there were a couple of things that were surprising about Dr. Heim: One, at age 38 she looked about the same age as a high school senior. And two, she was missing her left arm. She mentioned it once: “I don’t do surgery,” she said, giving herself a careless whack with the other hand on the empty left sleeve of her lab coat by way of explanation. But beyond that, it was all about the dog, who on that occasion had a urinary tract infection and we wanted to check in about continued treatment for Heidi’s big-dog joint problems.
Not sure whether questions would be politically correct, my husband and I didn’t ask about the arm situation. Besides, by the end of our session, we had pretty much forgotten about it (and Heidi never noticed it at all). We only knew we wanted the petite vet who was willing to get down on the floor and go nose to nose with our big German Shepherd to continue to be our dog’s doctor. We have Alan's two young adult children as part of our family, but Heidi is "our" kid -- unless she misbehaves, in which case she is Alan's dog.
A bit later, we saw Dr. Heim on the cover of Studio City Lifestyle magazine – hey, Heidi had a celebrity vet! – and learned that she had lost the arm to a rare form of cancer. Some Internet snooping turned up an article in a publication from her alma mater, Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Brunswick, N.J., which revealed the other major challenge in Erica Heim’s life: even though this Vassar College biology graduate had worked as a vet tech and re-taken a number of required pre-vet courses to improve her grades, she was rejected by numerous veterinary schools before landing at Ross.
“The two big major blows in my life were not getting into vet school, and getting cancer,” she told me in an interview last week. “ They are the two things that have shaped me most in who I am as a doctor.”
Originally from L.A., Dr. Heim returned here so she could live with her parents while undergoing a year of grueling treatment for the cancer diagnosed during her final three weeks of veterinary school. One positive of that was developing a special bond with her parents that made her want to begin her life as a vet in the area (her husband, John Perlis, also a vet, has a mobile ultrasound practice). She practiced in Burbank and West L.A. before accepting an invitation from Best Friends to become medical director. “I always dreamed of being a practice owner, and that is what this job is essentially like,” she says.
Dr. Heim says that the vet techs, instead of being her right hand, have learned to serve as her left arm. “They just follow me instinctively, they kind of read my mind and act collectively as my left arm, so we can get everything done,” she says. “It doesn’t really get in my way any more, it just doesn’t. At first I had a long list of things that I couldn’t do, but there was an even longer list of things that I could do.”
She likes to think of her work as family practice, and today’s dogs are part of the family, she says. She and her husband have chosen not to have children, so lavish all of their parenting skills on their dog Archer, a Husky mixes. It’s rare to find a dog that lives outdoors in a dog house these days, she observes, and often the whole human family shows up for the dog’s medical checkups.
As a vet with proximity to Hollywood,she treats celebrities’ pets that often arrive with the celebrity’s assistant (she consults with the actual celebrity by phone). Of her other patients, she is especially proud of treating one of the only cats in the world to have received a kidney transplant. Her practice also includes high-energy bomb-sniffing dogs as well as dogs who work in commercials – but when they get to the vet, they’re all just dogs. Or cats.
“If they shake at the vet, they shake at the vet—it doesn’t matter whether they’re on a movie set the rest of the time,” she says. Each pet has its own personality. Some cats are frightened, she says, “but I had one this morning who was so comfortable rolling around I was scared it was going to roll off the table.” (For the record, Heidi loves going to the vet, considering the visit a social event at which she will be the center of attention, with possible snacks).
Dr. Heim’s arm situation (I just can't call it a disability) has one plus: It motivates her to spend more time doing what she does best—developing an intimate relationship with the family, animal and human.
“Maybe you have noticed I talk to you for awhile before I even look at Heidi,” she explains. “It’s a chance for [the parents] to get used to the fact that I look different from other doctors. And for the animal, it’s a to get used to my face, and my voice. I always give them the chance to be gentle with me, and I’ll be gentle with them.”