For more than 25 years, Joe Cortese has mended broken paws and sent home thousands of patients from his veterinary clinic with their tails wagging.
Now Cortese is the patient who needs help as he undergoes an expensive experimental cancer treatment. The owners of his furry patients and veterinarians from across the country are making sure he gets that help, raising $53,000 so far to pay for medical bills not covered by insurance.
"I miss working," a weary, but optimistic Cortese said Friday, having just returned home after three weeks of chemotherapy at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. "In two to four weeks I will be back working."
Said his wife, Goldie: "He told me, 'I feel a hole inside,' because he's not out there caring for the animals."
Cortese, 56, who runs Capistrano Veterinary Clinic, was diagnosed in July with a particularly aggressive form of cancer: small cell carcinoma of the lung. With a new, intense chemotherapy, doctors said his chances of survival could increase from 20% to 80%.
But his hopes were crushed when his insurance company refused to pay for the experimental treatment. So Cortese sold his retirement home and emptied his savings accounts to raise $100,000. Help also was on the way.
"Many of the vets in south Orange County donated their services and took time away from their own businesses to go in and help him run his business," said Dr. Dan Lavach, a former classmate of Cortese's who operates a Garden Grove animal eye clinic.
Meanwhile, the Southern California Veterinarian Medical Assn. contacted about a dozen of Cortese's 1968 graduating classmates from Colorado State University. The classmates flew to Orange County from several states to attend a recent fund-raiser at the Improv in Irvine, Lavach said.
The help was not surprising. Cortese always has been generous with others, his wife said.
"Anyone who goes to his clinic are cared for even if he has to reach into his pocket," she said.
A second fund-raiser, organized by the San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 6 at L'Hirondelle restaurant.
Information: (714) 493-4700.