Innovation and A+ attitudes abound 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: Palisades Veterinary Hospital in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Register and learn more at aaha.org/aahacon.
Deah Hessian, DVM, always aims high—whether competing in horseback riding or practicing veterinary medicine. So 23 years ago when she expanded her practice, Palisades Veterinary Hospital in Fountain Hills, Arizona, she designed the new building with AAHA standards in mind.
“We really took those AAHA guidelines to heart when we built this hospital, because within a year we sat for our first AAHA inspection,” she recalled. “Back then they had gold levels, and silver levels, and then entry level.”
On its first try, the practice achieved AAHA’s highest level of accreditation—and has maintained it ever since. Now Hessian is not only a five-time American Quarter Horse Association World Champion and a member of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association’s Academy—but her practice is a finalist for 2023 AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year.
“AAHA has really been that guiding force behind us when we make decisions on protocols or continuing education or our culture,” she said. “It touches on so many different facets of how this hospital operates that we see AAHA as an integral member of this hospital. We have believed in AAHA for so long.”
The Palisades Thursday team (L to R, front to Back) Sebastian Harris-Wylde, Stephanie Crobar, CVT, Practice Manager Michael Milosevic, Morgan Ellis, Katie Jones, Alex Jossy, Shannon Firestone, Scott Ruple, MSSM, MBA, Deah Hessian, DVM, Teresa Juetten, DVM, Elijah Morales (Not pictured: Reagan Shippey, Alex Ficula)*
(L to R) Veterinary Assistant Morgan Ellis, Lead Surgical Technician Stephanie Crobar, CVT, and Deah Hessian, DVM, using the ultrasound.*
Hessian also believes in her team. When she purchased Palisades Veterinary Hospital in 1993, her dream was to build a “world-class practice with a small-town feel.” So she’s surrounded herself with people who share that commitment to top-notch care and friendly service.
Nurturing teamwork and individual achievement
Palisades Veterinary Hospital promotes based on attitude and mastery of skills above “time served.” So Michael Milosevic started off as a lead technician but was promoted within a year to office manager.
“As far as building the culture, rather than just finding the best qualified people based on their achievements and degrees and things like that, we try to find people that fit really well with a team—that have a desire to learn,” he said. “We can always teach them the skills they need.”
To that end, Palisades Veterinary Hospital has hired professionals from within the veterinary industry as well as those with backgrounds in the military, banking, and airlines—industries that also have high-stress levels and require aptitude and attention to detail.
Milosevic, who is known around the practice as “The Dad Guy,” had a background in corporate medicine. He feels the difference in company cultures is night and day. “It was a nightmare: Everybody was just a number. Everybody had to do a certain set amount for their basic requirements, like how many pets they see, how many dollars they bring in,” he said. “Here, we don’t have that kind of environment. It’s more of, ‘How many animals did we help today? How well did we help the animals?’ It’s a beautiful thing, and everybody’s on board with that.”
Katie Jones and Alex Jossy using the cold laser on Sasha.*
Michael Milosevic trains Morgan Ellis on reading slides.*
Michael Milosevic trains Alex Jossy on restraining and treatment.*
Though the practice is in metro Phoenix, near Scottsdale, he said it retains a small-town feel since the team is on a first-name basis with around 90 percent of the clients, who often whip out their phones to share photos of their pets’ birthday parties or other personal experiences.
Morgan Ellis worked in reception for about a year, but thanks to her positive attitude and interest in becoming a technician, Palisades Veterinary Hospital offered her training and a promotion. After two-and-a-half years at the practice, she’s now training others.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of growth through my time here,” she said. “it’s great because they offer a lot of help. I’m actually looking into online schooling for becoming a certified technician.”
Morgan Ellis does some ax-throwing at a group offsite event.
Hessian loves having a team that’s energized about learning. The entire staff is encouraged to pursue continuing education beyond minimum requirements; each job title comes with CE goals, and Milosevic seeks out fun opportunities and shares them with the team.
(In fact, he recently attended a CE session on the feline osteoarthritis treatment Solensia with some co-workers, and now his 13-year-old cat is back to running around like a kitten—with the zoomies each night at 2 am.)
“We really impress upon people that (CE) is not just for the now. This is for their future,” Hessian said. “They can take that career in their own hands and make it the best that they can.”
Morgan Ellis, Teresa Juetten, DVM, and an EVIT student treating a rare big cat.
Deah Hessian, DVM, using the endoscope on a dog.*
The practice operates a boarding facility called “The Resort,” with air-conditioned indoor runs and an enclosed outdoor play area. The kennel staff take care socializing the pets, and observe the dogs and cats so they can alert the medical team if anything seems off.
“Many times they’re the first person that says, ‘I know Fluffy and I know he’s just not right. They brought him in for boarding, and we really need to do something,’” Hessian said. “They’re just as integral a part of our team as anybody else that’s here.”
Commitment to the Fountain Hills community
Giving back is key to the culture at Palisades Veterinary Hospital. Hessian’s husband Scott Ruple, practice co-owner, said community service has been a priority since the very beginning.
“The best part about Fountain Hills is that even though we’re kind of part of Scottsdale, everybody in Fountain Hills is proud to be a resident of Fountain Hills,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
For example, Palisades joined with other local businesses to create a safe Halloween event for children. During the popular Halloween in the Hills—now called Spooky Blast—the town center hosts a special celebration where thousands of children enjoy games, trick-or-treating, costume contests, pet-friendly activities, and movies.
“I think we gave away a thousand dollars in candy last year,” Ruple said with a laugh. “We actually have kids that are bused up here from other communities. It’s safe for kids. That’s something we really love.”
Palisades’ collections for the Four Peaks food drive.
During the holidays, Palisades Veterinary Hospital treats the team to lunch and a shopping trip to buy gifts for children through the Salvation Army’s Christmas Angels program.
“We give them the names of the kids and what they want, and then go find the toys they want,” he said. “We deliver bags full of toys.”
The practice also hosts collection drives for the nonprofit Four Peaks Animal Rescue; donates to the nonprofit Fearless Kitty Rescue; provides mobile veterinary care to pets of seniors living in assisted-living facilities; and attends local job fairs to educate the public about careers in veterinary medicine.
Twice a year, the practice welcomes high school students from East Valley Institute of Technology to spend several months learning the ins and outs of working at an animal hospital.
Emphasizing innovation and excellence
In addition to outstanding culture and community service, Palisades Veterinary Hospital prioritizes innovation, according to Hessian. (As Ruple noted, “We joke that Dr. Hessian is not a Type A person—she’s Type AAA. There’s no such thing as just doing a good job. It’s got to be excellent.”)
“We really try to embrace new technology, to find opportunities and treatments that will benefit our clients and their pets,” Hessian said. “We started doing dental X-rays years ago when they said you should start bringing dental X-rays into your practice. We embraced ultrasound and endoscopy early on and have those units. And now we’re embracing green light therapy in the reduction of stress and anxiety, especially for our feline patients.”
Some of the laser lights used in Palisades’ Green Light Therapy (GLT).*
To that end, the practice is working with Lauren Martin, PhD, a researcher at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, to develop a green-light prototype for veterinary medicine. The idea is to reduce pain and anxiety for cats through a noninvasive treatment that doesn’t involve medication.
Deah Hessian, DVM, at her workstation.*
When asked what it would mean to win AAHA-Accredited Practice of the Year, Hessian teared up.
“It would be just unbelievable . . . To be selected as one of the four finalists has been a goal of mine for 20 years. I have my fingers and my toes crossed that AAHA will see what I see every day when I walk into this practice, which is truly a practice of excellence,” she said.
“What really sets us apart is our culture. It’s the people I work with. It is making it a joy to come in every day—to come to work and be happy at work.”
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 Palisades Veterinary Hospital and *Photographer Mark Trembly
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.