Everyday Hero: Michelle Lem

Above: Living on the street can be cold and lonely and often the best thing homeless people have to cope are their pets. One Ottawa vet offers her services for free to ensure their pets get the care they need. Mike Le Couteur has the story.

OTTAWA – A trip to the veterinarian can leave pet owners with high bills, but an Ottawa woman is making sure those less fortunate aren’t priced out of the market.

Chelsea Careau can’t pay for veterinary care, but she also can’t imagine life without her two pets.

“I cannot live without my pets. I cannot live without my babies,” she said. “A lot of people are on welfare right now, so they don’t have the money to pay for this.”

That’s why Careau brought her two kittens to a free clinic run by Ottawa veterinarian Michelle Lem.

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“I really do consider it a privilege to serve the clients that we have because it’s an opportunity to help somebody in need and there’s nothing greater in the world than to be able to do that,” Lem said.

Lem knew she wanted to use her profession to help others, as soon as she graduated from veterinary school.

So ten years ago, Lem started putting her professional skills to work for those less fortunate in her community, providing free veterinary care for pets belonging to homeless or at-risk people.

The service, now called Community Veterinary Outreach, started at a homeless shelter in downtown Ottawa, but has now expanded to three other Ontario cities.

All of the vets and assistants work for free. The materials are either covered by donations or sponsorships. And the bills are non-existent.

Fellow veterinarian and outreach volunteer Jennifer Messer said many of her peers think about doing what Lem did.

“We dream about it, she did it,” said Messer, who attributes Lem’s success to her servant leadership.

“She leads this organization by acting in every aspect of what she does as a model servant to the people that are arguably some of society’s most vulnerable. She is my hero.”

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WATCH: Her peers discuss why Lem is a hero

What started as a service for pets has expanded to caring for their human masters as well. Along with veterinarians, social workers or health professionals are regular fixtures at clinics.

Taking care of a pet often means people take better care of themselves, according to Lem. She’s seen people get housing, avoid crime and eat better once they’ve become pet owners.

It’s certainly the case for Binky, a street-involved youth, who showed up to a recent clinic in Toronto, Ont. with his dog, Zeus.

“He changed my life for the better. I used to be in a gang and do stupid things and go to jail all the time. Now I’ve got him and I’ve got to think of the pros and cons you know,” he said.

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WATCH: Lem’s clients talk about why pets are important to them

At that clinic, health professionals were on hand to counsel people to quit smoking – a habit that can cause cancer in both humans and animals.

The intersection between human and animal health excites Lem.

“It’s such a win-win-win and we’re just kind of on the cusp of breaking through to see what kind of impact we can have,” she said.

Lem’s goal is to expand her work across the country, not only to help people and their pets, but to help other veterinarians experience the fulfillment she gets from her work.

“It’s my life’s work. It’s my passion. While we are a register charity, I never consider what we do as a charity because we get so much out of it.”

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WATCH: Michelle Lem talks about why she volunteers

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