Dr. Rahel Klapheke Sloan was raised on a horse farm outside of Louisville, KY, and — according to the Nashville veterinarian — “always had a million critters.” Today, “Dr. K,” as she’s affectionately known among both staff and clients, owns Parker’s Paws Animal Hospital, a Nashville veterinary clinic offering a complete menu of veterinary services for dogs and cats. She has a staff of six female vets, a soft spot for Shih Tzus and a client list a mile long. Get to know this ambitious woman with a contagious smile and a huge heart. Meet Dr. K, our newest FACE of Nashville!
Where are you from, and what brought you to Nashville?
I’m from Louisville, KY, and I came to Nashville because I had classmates here from Auburn. It was a fun town for a young, single vet. I’d visited a couple of times and fell madly in love with the town.
Did you always know you wanted to be a veterinarian?
No. I worked at the Kentucky Horse Park after college. I had a degree in animal science, but I never had the desire to be a vet. I just always loved being with animals, not necessarily working on them. But at the horse park, I worked with — and for — a lot of vets who made me feel inferior because of my education … because I wasn’t a vet. I didn’t like the feeling that gave me. I could do insemination, but I couldn’t do the science part. I could inseminate the eggs under the microscope, but I couldn’t do the ultrasounds. It felt like I was being limited, and then with treatment, my opinion wasn’t taken seriously, and I wanted to do something about that. I felt that education was power, so I decided to go to vet school with the intention of being a large animal vet.
You’re not, though. Why not?
I got hurt. Dairy bulls are mean! When you work cattle, you push them through a series of gates. One of the cows kicked the gate, and it hit me in the head, and I dropped. I had a concussion and decided small animals were better for me.
Dr. Jeff Willard, in Crestwood, KY, was my mentor. He said that vets will get seriously injured by either a small or large animal about every 10 years, and he’s right. That was my first. My second was when I got mauled in the face. A dog got his leg caught in a door, and he got me — it’s a dangerous job! I called Jeff — he’s still a good family friend. He said, “Yep, that’s about right.” I have three more years till I’m due for the next!
How does that danger factor impact your work?
I look back and think, thank God it wasn’t one of my employees. It’s scary because you have to take care of 30+ people. Their safety and owners’ safety is the number one thing. We’ll have a tech holding an animal, and I’m doing something, and the animal reacts — they’re fight or flight creatures — and the owner’s intuition is to reach for their animal, and we can’t always get the owner to understand that we’re not hurting them — it’s just a natural reaction. So the safety of owners is important, too.
What has been the most surprising part of being a vet and owning your own practice?
I’ve been practicing for 17 years, and I’ve been in Nashville for 13. Now I’m coming around with the full circle of life. I was their first vet at their first puppy visit, and now we’ve put that dog to sleep, and they’re getting their next puppy. No one prepared me for that part — the circle of life. It’s pretty darn special. My staff already knows that the most important visits are the first and the last — the fact that I’ve been part of the family’s life is why I chose to do this — it’s the best part.
When I opened my clinic, I didn’t realize that at other clinics, you have your certain cases, but you don’t become as emotionally involved as when you own your own practice. The intention of this clinic was to be only me and four or five techs. Then I would have an occasional relief doc. But that quickly changed because of the growth of Nashville — either I’d have to stop taking new clients or hire more vets. But in the beginning, I was the only vet here six days a week, so I was it — good and bad. If it was great, great. If it was bad, you had to figure it out. I wasn’t ready for that part either. Today, though, we have six full-time female vets on staff.
Why did you open Parker’s Paws?
It’s named after my dog Parker, a Beagle/German Shepherd mix. He showed up at our family farm when I was in high school, and he lived to be 18 years. I named it Parker’s Paws because I never wanted to be alone — I wanted to create a team and a facility and a philosophy where we practice the absolute best medicine possible — no excuses!
What is the most common mistake you see owners make with their animals that is avoidable?
Not giving heartworm prevention or flea and tick treatment. We literally see dogs die of diseases that are preventable.
What is something people don’t know about or would be surprised to learn about veterinary medicine?
I think sometimes people think that a DVM behind their name makes all vets equal, but the continuity of care is extremely important. Don’t be afraid to request a certain doctor. I know sometimes they’re not available when it is convenient for you, but if I have a doctor who knows me and understands my past, I will change my schedule to make sure I see that person, and you can do that with vets too.
The other thing people don’t realize is that our patients don’t talk, and they don’t read medical books. So their symptoms won’t always match the disease, and they’re not telling us what hurts. So it’s a team effort. Let me hear what you’re concerned about, and let me see if it matches, and let’s come up with a game plan — hopefully, without running every test in the book. The owner needs to call me back and say if the treatment did or didn’t work. We need to work together. A good history and good communication with the owner — that’s critical!
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Euthanasia. [Being a vet] is such a great job, and it’s so rewarding, but I don’t think people realize we cry every day. The owner leaves, the body leaves, and you feel like you failed. In the next room, you go into a new puppy visit, and you’re supposed to be elated. That roller coaster of emotions … people sometimes forget that we’re human beings. Unfortunately, some vets have become hardened because the emotion can be so hard.
I hope when I get to heaven, they’ll all thank me for relieving their pain. There are so many highs — we’re literally saving lives every day. It doesn’t get better than that. It’s just sometimes hard to ride the roller coaster.
What is the most rewarding?
Pets getting healthy. It’s great. It keeps me up at night and keeps me going.
Shifting gears, when you’re not working, how do you enjoy spending your free time?
Hiking in Percy Warner.
Where is your favorite place to hang out in Nashville?
Kayne Prime. Or at home, sitting by the fire with my husband, a good glass of red wine, and my cats on my lap.
What’s at the top of your bucket list?
I’m doing it! I’m living my bucket list every day!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Of owning a business, the hardest part is managing the people.” I was given that before I started my practice, and it’s the truth. When I started my practice, I was really good with animals, but you have to be good with handling people too.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Wine. Good food — I love good food. And laughter.
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