Couple leads with kindness at AAHA-award 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: Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Register and learn more at aaha.org/aahacon.
Back in 1999, two veterinary students at The Ohio State University met during a freshman mixer at a chicken wing joint. They became friends and developed a mutual respect, as well as a shared love of veterinary medicine.
Now Joanna Parson, DVM, and Adam Parson, DVM, are happily married with three children, and co-owners of AAHA-accredited Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
The practice boasts a team of eight veterinarians—coincidentally, all are graduates of The Ohio State University—39 support staff, a state-of-the-art facility—and the distinction of being a finalist for 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year.
“We’re so excited,” Joanna Parson said. “It’s been an amazing ride for sure.”
Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital’s building renovations were completed in 2019 to combine their two small practices into one.
Witnessing the AAHA difference
Joanna Parson was working as an ER veterinarian at MedVet Columbus when that practice underwent AAHA accreditation, and she witnessed the high standards that go into being a top-notch practice. So when she and her husband opened their own practices—starting with Northstar Animal Care in 2006 and Upper Arlington Animal Hospital in 2008—they aspired to excellence.
“Initially all that drive that we had picked up from our previous mentors drove us and gave us that visceral grit to do it,” she recalled. “Once we started our own practices, it became, ‘How do we intentionally, formally do this?’ So AAHA became our platform to get all our systems in place, evaluate what we were doing and how we were doing things, and have our team evaluated and elevated based on those standards.”
In 2019, the couple merged their practices and constructed a new animal hospital with features that include six exam rooms with natural light thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows; automatic front doors; an elevator; exam tables that fold down to accommodate giant breeds; and a quiet break room for staff.
Adam Parson said they basically gutted an old commercial building to create today’s Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital.
“It was great to really make it our own and turn it into a dream come true for us,” he said.
Both veterinarians are quick to credit their team as a huge source of pride—in the quality of medicine practiced as well as how well they support one another. Every staff meeting ends with a “staff shout out” to recognize someone on the team who went above and beyond with a client, pet, or another staff member. A veterinarian might shout out an assistant, or a technician might shout out a CSR, which boosts camaraderie.
Jenna Bonfiglio, DVM, and Jaimie Hartline, RVT, discuss a case while Mason Simon, RVT, reviews a chart.
Sarah Berneking, RVT, takes a patient's history in an exam room.
Adam Parson, DVM, and Carrie Coleman, RVT, do an ultrasound on Albert.
Knowledge is power
“Intellectual curiosity” is a core value at Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital—in addition to respect, integrity, and urgency—so each year, the practice closes on a Saturday and pays for all interested team members to attend the Midwest Veterinary Conference for continuing education.
The practice brings in specialists from The Ohio State University and MedVet to share specialty-level CE topics, posts online CE opportunities on the refrigerator in the break room, and invites speakers like drug reps to staff meetings—where the latest AAHA and AAFP guidelines are also discussed.
Medical Director Heather Giatis, DVM, said one of her favorite aspects of the practice—in addition to the “kindness and generosity” of the Parsons as leaders of a practice that is “not drama ridden”—is that team members can pursue areas of veterinary medicine they find interesting.
For instance, Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital offers minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries for spays, liver biopsies, and pursuing gastric foreign bodies, instead of having to do an open explore, she noted.
“Those have been some really exciting advancements that we’ve been able to add in the past few years,” she said. “Creating those niches of medicine where we can focus on what we love and what we thrive on.”
It extends to the whole team, like a technician who thrives on palliative care and loves guiding clients through end-of-life decisions, or the team members who enjoy working on international health certificates.
“We’ve been able to foster those areas of professional and personal development that I think leads to a lot of job satisfaction and keeps us coming back for more,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to work. I’m very blessed to work here.”
Beth Stafford, DVM, and Jim Quang, RVT, perform acupuncture on Stryder.
Upper Arlington team members at a goat yoga event.
Great culture—and a full staff
Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital is such a beautiful place to work that it doesn’t face the staffing issues currently plaguing the industry, according to Practice Manager Mandi Cooper, SHRM-CP, who has worked there for 16 years.
“I am just really proud to say—and I knock on wood as I say this—that we are not short-staffed,” she said. “I think that does speak volumes to the culture.”
Team-building exercises contribute to the culture, from goat yoga and 80s-themed pickleball outings, to an annual staff campout that welcomes the team’s children, significant others, and dogs.
“We get to see people outside of work, and then you get to know their spouses and their kids,” she said. “Because we do have such longevity on our staff, we’ve seen most of these kids go from second grade to college . . . We have literally all grown up together.”
Because the culture values family and wellness, Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital funds an EAP hotline to help the staff—or anyone in their household, including children as old as 25, even if they’re away at college—to speak to a licensed therapist about anything on their minds. (As Adam Parson noted, “wellness” isn’t just a buzzword for AAHA or for his practice.)
“They’re always welcome to come to me, but having a licensed professional at your fingertips 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is really beneficial for them,” Cooper said. “It’s completely anonymous.”
‘Try to help somebody today’
That care for people extends not just to the staff and clients, but to the community at large.
“I always tell my kids, ‘Try to help somebody today. Do something nice for somebody today,’” Adam Parson said.
To that end, the Parsons volunteer at vaccine clinics for the nonprofit Columbus Dog Connection and the practice hosts fundraisers to support the rescue organization. Staff members get a paid day off to volunteer at the charity of their choice.
When the practice upgraded its computer system a few years ago, the team donated equipment still in working order to low-income families and seniors in need.
Employees feel comfortable suggesting causes to support, according to Giatis. After her sister, Jessica Pettiti, saved the life of a stranger by giving him CPR when he suffered cardiac arrest in a Costco, Giatis asked the Parsons if the team could receive CPR training from the American Red Cross.
“It was like, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ No questions asked,” she recalled. “Not only are we employed here, but we go out into the world every day and if our training can help us in our greater community, we want to be able to do that.”
The Parsons sponsored CPR/AED and basic first aid training for employees this spring and ordered an AED device in case an emergency happens onsite.
Upper Arlington team members at a company-sponsored CPR and AED training.
The team has also supported lifesaving efforts by hosting a blood drive inspired by a local child named Brady, who needed multiple blood transfusions during cancer treatments. When an infant named Noah with a rare genetic disorder needed a bone marrow transplant, a dozen employees underwent training to host a Be the Match event—which garnered 39 potential donors.
“Baby Noah did find a bone marrow match,” Giatis said. “He was here in our building last year and it brought so many of us to tears seeing him thriving and doing well.”
When a client needed TNR help with a cat colony, the team spayed, neutered, and treated a whopping 52 cats—for free.
“We get to know our clients fairly intimately and we get to know about their passion projects, and then sometimes those become our passion projects too,” she said. “We can partner with them.”
CSR Emily Skunkwiler helps obtain a weight on a patient.
Upper Arlington CSRs pose for a social media post in their honor for 2023 CSR Appreciation Week.
So what would it mean to the practice to win AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year? Unsurprisingly, it’s all about honoring the team for the Parsons. Joanna Parson gave a shout out to Jenna Burt Cameron, office manager, for pulling together the competition application and working to maintain AAHA standards throughout the practice, and a former employee—Jessica Kiffner, RVT—who helped both practices achieve their initial AAHA accreditations.
Though Kiffner had to move away from Columbus for personal reasons, they’re flying her out to San Diego for AAHA Con 2023 to celebrate being finalists—and possibly winners.
Regardless of the outcome, Joanna Parson feels grateful for the entire team at Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital.
“I’m so thankful every day that I work with special people and such talented people who are just nothing but goodness,” she said. “They work their hearts out and they care for each other so much.”
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.
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.
Photos courtesy of Upper Arlington Veterinary Hospital
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.