112-year-old New York family practice a finalist for AAHA award
This is a spotlight of one of the 2022 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year (APOY) Finalists. The winner was announced at the 2022 Connexity conference in Nashville. The award was generously supported by Zoetis. Learn more at aaha.org/apoy.
In Syracuse, New York, in the early 1900s, firefighters relied on horses to pull their heavy, steam fire engines; the police force did their jobs on horseback; and the slow barges moving along the Erie Canal were towed by mules. Farm and working animals were crucial to everyday life—and John Stack, DVM, was their local veterinarian.
What started in the garage of his home on Bellevue Avenue in Syracuse grew to a new location and evolved over the last century to become Stack Veterinary Hospital. John's son Robert Stack, DVM, graduated from Cornell University Veterinary College and joined his father’s practice in 1950. Together they built what was considered the first modern veterinary hospital in central New York state, and they expanded to include veterinary care for dogs and cats.
Robert’s own sons also became veterinarians: Michael Stack, DVM, graduated from Cornell University Veterinary College in 1977, and Daniel Stack, DVM, graduated from North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine in 1988.
Michael carried on the family tradition of working with large animals, and Dan bought the small-animal practice from his father in 1993.
Sally Jo VanOstrand-Crill, MSW, has worked at Stack for 20 years. This past May, she earned her master’s degree in social work, and she’s now the hospital’s veterinary social worker.
“I have a letter from my grandmother to my grandfather when he was stationed in Italy in World War II, and their dog got black tongue fever,” VanOstrand-Crill said. “It says right in the letter that it was Dr. Stack who treated the dog.”
One of the hospital’s core values has always been to build and maintain client relationships—and that has clearly had a generational impact. “We still have clients that talk about the [two] older Dr. Stacks,” she said.
Changing—and learning—with the times
What began in 1910 as a small, family business has become a training ground for top talent. In the early 1990s, when Dan Stack took over, he made it a point to bring on board-certified specialists.
Stack now has a surgical referral practice led by Eileen Snakard, DVM, ACVS, and Jan MacDonald, DVM, DACVS; advanced ultrasound services led by Linda Homco, DVM, ACVR; cardiology consultations with Eva Oxford, DVM, DACVIM, PhD; and behavior consultations with Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB; as well as feline and canine rehabilitation with Susie Salvage LVT, CCRP.
“As a practice with five board-certified doctors, we recognize how fortunate we are to benefit from the unique training opportunities afforded to our team each day,” said Stephanie O’Brien, LVT, who is a multitalented hospital manager who has worked at Stack for 10 years as a licensed veterinary technician, feline groomer, human resources manager, and client coordinator.
Stack holds monthly departmental CE events, lunch-and-learns, and in-house training—and everyone is encouraged to pursue personal goals. For example, O’Brien said: “Many of our team members started in the kennels or as veterinary assistants and have gone on through online coursework study to become licensed veterinary technicians.”
The practice regularly welcomes students from colleges all over the US who come to experience the daily hospital routine and learn real skills. It’s common to see young people shadowing Stack’s doctors and technicians on any given day.
“We work very closely with a lot of the technician schools around and we're always taking tech interns over the winter and summer breaks,” O'Brien said, “but then we also have a lot of middle school and high school students who want to come in and shadow a doctor or technician to learn more about the career.”
Far from a disruption, she said, the Stack team has made this kind of hands-on teaching and learning a part of its culture, both inside and outside of the hospital. “Our staff members are enthusiastic about their respective career paths and enjoy discussing the road to success with prospective colleagues."
A community resource
You might assume a business that started before the automobile would be stuck in the past—but if there’s one thing that has kept Stack Veterinary Hospital young, it’s their community.
Stack technicians and doctors attend career days at local schools and community events, where they might present on their own topic or use one of the hospital’s hands-on learning kits intended to educate about pet care and the role of the veterinary team.
Their reach goes even further to include a weekly talk radio show on Newsradio 570 WSYR about pets and veterinary medicine, hosted by Stack veterinarians Jamie Lovejoy, DVM, and Kristin Seller, DVM—and most recently, a YouTube channel with videos presented by staff members on educational topics such as “How to trim your dog’s nails” and “How to collect urine and stool samples from your cat.”
“The effects of the pandemic made it difficult to continue cultivating face-to-face connections with the community, so our team was inspired to create this YouTube channel,” O’Brien said. And the radio show is “an opportunity to reach a wider audience that may not know of our hospital and its values.”
By all accounts, these efforts are working. The Stack team’s work ethic, compassion, and dedication is evidenced by a steady stream of client referrals and positive online reviews: “Our employees tend not to consider it a place of work, but rather an environment where they can strive to be the best at doing the work that means the most to them,” O’Brien said.
Community outreach also has benefits for morale and team engagement. “The staff really benefits from things we do on a volunteer basis like making meals for the homeless in our community or doing the food drive for the dog food pantry,” said VanOstrand-Crill. “It's a really great outlet for that caregiver nature in us that we get to expand outside of the area of medicine.”
Wellness programs that work
When the COVID pandemic hit, the team was quick to make the necessary adjustments to keep everyone safe from infection—but they also had to protect their mental wellbeing.
As the full-time social worker on staff, VanOstrand-Crill looked for various entry points to help, including monthly wellness meetings to proactively address concerns and go over coping strategies and grounding techniques. She partnered with another social worker, Ednita Wright, PhD, LCSW, CASAC, to modify existing wellness tools so that they’re meaningful in the veterinary setting and are a more “customized fit for what our employees have to handle on a daily basis,” VanOstrand-Crill said.
They also have a dedicated room where employees can decompress—complete with a Zen garden and a massage chair—and a private, wellness-focused Facebook group just for the Stack team as a way to encourage each other. “I think investing in their wellbeing really proves to not only increase their quality of life, but also increases the care they give to patients, as well as the relationships they develop with clients,” she said.
These newer tactics build on work VanOstrand-Crill had started before the pandemic, when she spearheaded a peer-run pet loss support group in 2018. This blossomed into what she really wanted to do: helping employees and clients process hard experiences in the moment and in the long run.
“Sometimes, we have clients in need of mental health services or who are in a mental health crisis, and they really need that opportunity to debrief and have a moment of support,” she said. “It doesn't necessarily have to be the doctor in there with them at that point: It can be somebody who's educated in the field and has an understanding of how to help somebody through something like that.”
The pandemic forced VanOstrand-Crill to go virtual with the pet loss support group, which has expanded its reach.
“Anybody can call in and join. My last meeting, I had somebody on from Florida. I had another person on from Georgia—It's really great; I love doing it,” she said. “I do end-of-life consultations to help with obstacles like caregiver fatigue, and then I also do grief work after they've lost a pet.”
But the pet loss group is special because it’s peer-to-peer: “It's amazing how much that helps—sitting with people who understand and really get it.”
VanOstrand-Crill's passion motivated Stack to become one of the first practices to achieve AAHA End-of-Life Care accreditation, a specialized accreditation in addition to the main AAHA evaluation, that required them to learn a whole new set of AAHA standards.
65 years of AAHA accreditation
Both O’Brien and VanOstrand-Crill encourage their team to approach any AAHA accreditation with curiosity rather than fear.
“I always tell our employees: Don't be nervous. It's just like doing a fine-tuning, and taking any recommendations that AAHA has for us to excel and be even better than we already are,” O’Brien said.
“I think it's fun,” VanOstrand-Crill said: “It is sometimes a little stressful, but it's nice to go back through the checklists and see: ‘Yep. Oh yeah, we do that.’ Again, just trying to be the best hospital that we can be.”
Stack Veterinary Hospital earned its AAHA accreditation in 1957, not long after Robert Stack joined his father in practice. And since then, AAHA has been a part of their employee and client communications.
“During a new team member’s one-on-one onboarding, we discuss what it means to be an AAHA-accredited practice, and why we’ve chosen to uphold our accreditation for 65 years,” O’Brien said. “We also incorporate the AAHA values into phase training and annual performance evaluations.”
Stack has achieved other certifications as well: As a practice that embraces diversity and inclusion in their culture, they became AVMA Brave Space-certified in 2022. And in a world where dogs seem to get more attention, they created a place just for cats.
Cat owners are continuously impressed with the hospital’s feline-only waiting room, examination room, and ward. Stack became a Feline Friendly-certified practice in May 2013—and they have two official feline advocates: Rae Clark, DVM, and Shanna Zeckzer, LVT, who O’Brien said: “provide exquisite feline knowledge and handling techniques for our staff, clients, and patients.”
So, what would it mean to them to be the 2022 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year?
“The staff here is so proud that we're AAHA accredited—adding that [award] to it would be the cherry on top of everything,” VanOstrand-Crill said. “It would be absolutely incredible to represent our area—our community, and what we do here—but also to represent AAHA in a way that we haven't been able to up until this point.”
“We’re a very family-driven hospital, and that would just mean a lot to everybody,” she said.
A lot has changed in 112 years, but one thing remains the same: There's still a Dr. Stack, who hopes to pass the torch over to his daughter Hannah, now in her second year of vet school at The Ohio State University.
“The staff really contributes so much to our goals and Dr. Stack, being the owner of the practice, is always very open and willing to listen, collaborate, and give us the tools we need to succeed with these goals as well,” O’Brien said.
And that could just be their secret to another successful 100 years.
About the APOY Awards (aaha.org/apoy)
This is the 13th year for the AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year (APOY) award, which recognizes outstanding achievements in workplace culture, patient care, client engagement, and community involvement among AAHA-accredited practices. AAHA hospitals are known for their excellence, so this award is highly competitive. The awards committee evaluates each finalist on its most recent AAHA accreditation score, the practice’s mission and vision, team composition, CE and training programs, community service activities, and more. Learn more at aaha.org/awards.