A decade after winning AAHA’s top honor, renowned referral practice returns as a finalist
As we approach the big reveal at AAHA Con in San Diego, we’re profiling the four finalists for the 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year (in no particular order). Meet another finalist: NorthStar VETS in Robbinsville, New Jersey. Register and learn more at aaha.org/aahacon.
One of the finalists for 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year has humble beginnings: the trunk of a car.
In 2000, Daniel Stobie, DVM, MS, DACVS, founder and chief of staff at AAHA-accredited NorthStar Veterinary Emergency Trauma and Specialty (NorthStar VETS) in Robbinsville, New Jersey, decided to start a mobile veterinary practice. After his residency, he had worked at Animal Medical Center in New York City and a referral practice in New Jersey, and felt ready to set out on his own—despite some challenges.
“I’d always dreamed of having my own practice,” he said. “I still had a lot of student debt and didn’t have a lot of resources, so I started off as a mobile surgeon. I bought some surgery equipment . . . and put it in my car. Then what I would do is go around to the general practitioners and do the specialized surgery that they would [have been] referring to a referral center. So I literally got started working out of the trunk of my car.”
He developed strong relationships with the referring veterinary community as they watched him work. Meanwhile, he realized he couldn’t utilize his entire training and education without a stationary location, so he started operating part-time in a 4,000-square-foot building for procedures like hip replacements.
“The practice just grew from there,” he recalled.
A growing “green” practice
It sure did. Today NorthStar VETS is a 24-hour specialty and emergency animal hospital with a staff of 250 people—including more than 50 veterinarians—practicing in a 33,000-square-foot facility, plus two satellite locations.
The flagship hospital—which opened its doors in 2011—is a green facility that covers 80% of its energy costs through solar and geothermal technologies. In 2013, NorthStar VETS won AAHA-Accredited Referral Practice of the Year. A decade later, Stobie’s team took the initiative to apply for 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year to see if they can do it again.
“We’re very happy and proud to be an AAHA-accredited practice,” he said. “We strive every day to be the best in the industry and provide the best medicine.”
Founder and Chief Medical Officer Daniel Stobie, DVM, MS, DACVS, leading the surgery team on a total hip surgery (Featured: Gregory Zuendt, DVM, Surgery Resident Daniel Sandoval, VMD, and Michael Beauduy)
Persevering in tough times
When the coronavirus pandemic caused many nearby practices to close or start turning away clients with pets that needed care, Stobie and his team at NorthStar VETS resolved to stay open. To support the staff, the human resources team instituted an Employee Assistance Program, and hired a veterinary social worker to counsel the team as well as clients coping with end-of-life decisions.
Though there has been some turnover from burnout, Stobie feels they did the right thing.
“I still feel very strongly that being there for the public and committing to the veterinary oath of being available no matter what’s going on, that was really important,” he said. “A lot of these animals really needed care and would not have gotten it had we not been there for them.”
RECOVER ALS & BLS Instructor, Sarah Turley, BS, CVT, with the NorthStar technician team.
“Always leading, always learning”
He also feels strongly about strengthening the veterinary profession through education; the motto of the practice’s education and training department is “Always Leading, Always Learning.” In the past year, NorthStar VETS hosted 51 externs—from college freshmen to fourth-year veterinary students and international veterinarians—while seeing more than 63,000 cases and providing services in 20 different veterinary specialties.
The practice sponsors employees for the Penn Foster Veterinary Technician Program and cross-trains technicians in different specialties.
Each month NorthStar VETS offers CE via Zoom or in-person to the referring veterinary community in a program called “Social Vetworking.” Topics can be geared toward veterinarians as well as veterinary technicians, management, and client service representatives.
“A lot of the lectures are medically based, but for instance, last night we had one for CSRs on soft skills and dealing with difficult people,” Stobie said. “Most of our team really enjoys teaching.”
Stobie is concerned that people are down or leaving the profession in the wake of the heightened challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, so he feels mentorship to show the good aspects of veterinary medicine is crucial.
He personally loves the science of veterinary medicine, the problem-solving piece, and “obviously” animals. But the most rewarding part often comes from helping the pet of someone who is deeply attached to the animal.
“When you can restore the animal to health and return them to that person, it’s just a very gratifying and rewarding experience to see the joy on the person’s face and the appreciation,” he said. “Maybe that is what makes it all worthwhile.”
Andrea Winkel, DVM, MPH (Avian and Exotics) performs surgery on an eel.
The team meets twice a day for cage-side rounds to review each case as a collaborative effort.
Love of learning and collaboration
The NorthStar VETS team loves teaching as well as learning, according to Rosalie LoScrudato, DVM, CVA, CCRP. She joined the practice as an emergency room veterinarian in 2007 but transitioned to rehabilitation and pain management in 2011 as her interests evolved.
“I’ve been a vet since 1990, and every day I walk into that building and I learn something,” she said. “That, to me, is probably the biggest gift that NorthStar gives me every single day. I don’t feel like I’m ever bored there—there’s always something I can learn. I think that’s what makes NorthStar what it is.”
She enjoys the collaboration between veterinarians who work to offer Western medicine alongside holistic and integrative care, such as acupuncture, physical therapy, and herbal remedies.
For instance, when a dog recovering from surgery presented differently when he arrived for physical therapy a month later, she was able to call in a neurologist to have a look at his neurologic leg—and the clients trusted her to do so.
“We open up our medical bag and use everything that we can to help the patients,” she said.
Chief Operating Officer Joan Fischer and Steven Berkowitz, DVM, DACVECC (Emergency and Critical Care) with board members of Children’s Specialized Hospital and Maui the service dog.
NorthStar VETS gives back to the community not just through top-notch medicine and teaching, but philanthropy. For 15 years, the practice has fundraised for its “Vet-I-Care” nonprofit (“like Medicare, but Vet-I-Care,” Stobie noted) to help cover treatment costs for families who can’t afford necessary care for their pets.
During the holidays, NorthStar VETS hosts a toy drive for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots and a food drive for the Allentown Presbyterian Food Pantry. Last year, they collected and donated 225 pounds of nonperishable food for people and pets.
Each October, the practice hosts a Blessing of the Animals, which connects clients and their pets in a meaningful way, according to LoScrudato.
“It’s heartwarming to see how clients interact with one another,” she said. “I think that strengthens the hospital’s community because all these clients are supporting each other and praying for each other. It shows compassion for each other, and I think that’s what our world needs.”
The technician team delivering golden retriever puppies via C-section.
Love in action
Year-round, NorthStar VETS supports the nonprofit Greyhound Friends of New Jersey and other animal-related charities.
Criticalist Steven Berkowitz, DVM, DACVECC, serves on the board of Mickey’s Kids Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to children, and facility dogs to hospitals. NorthStar VETS provides free veterinary care to facility dogs placed by the nonprofit at Children’s Specialized Hospital, including Maui and Bear, golden retrievers currently working at the hospital.
Their predecessor, Burton, fought a long battle with cancer.
“We did 18 months of chemo on that dog, and Dr. Stobie never asked for a cent,” Berkowitz said. “Anything these dogs need done—medically, diagnostically, anything—it’s done, and there is no question. Everyone in the hospital knows that.”
Berkowitz runs the practice’s blood bank, which offers “really good” discounts to clients whose pets donate blood, as well as bloodwork twice a year. When a pet finishes their service, the practice thanks them with a plaque and celebrates them on social media.
“We were one of the only hospitals during Covid that was not running out of blood,” he said. “It’s great for the community, and the people that are helping obviously feel great about it.”
Many members of the team share a passion for giving back and collaboration, he said. Even the layout of the hospital is designed to promote interaction.
“We really do have almost everything under one roof, which is really nice,” Berkowitz said. “Everyone is friendly, and we work well together. There’s no ‘fighting in the sandbox.’ It’s a very collaborative, cohesive group. We bounce ideas off each other about each other’s cases.”
That genuine teamwork is why Stobie hopes NorthStar VETS wins AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year again: because of what it would mean for the team. While he feels pride about the clinical trials and publications that have come out of his practice, what makes him most proud are the people working alongside him.
“We have a really great group of people that are not only excellent at what they do medically, but they’re really nice people, and they really care,” Stobie said. “I’m always amazed every day at all the things they accomplish together.”
When and where will the 2023 APOY Award be announced?
The 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year will be announced on Thursday, September 21, during the Awards and Gavel Pass ceremony at AAHA Con in San Diego. It will also be livestreamed on Instagram. Give us a follow at Instagram/aahahealthypet.
Photos courtesy of NorthStar VETS
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America. Bylines include Trends, CNN, BBC News, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, The Daily Beast, Family Dog Magazine, the TODAY show’s website, Woman’s World, HuffPost, and many other publications. She writes alongside her dogs Rio and Tux in her home office in Denver, Colorado.
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.