Embarking on 2021 with Hope, Gratitude & Clear Vision
Sitting down with Harmony Veterinary Center’s co-owners, Julia McPeek and Dr. Shelley Brown, DVM, a clear pattern emerges. The pandemic has been exhausting, and in their case, exasperated by the simultaneous construction of a brand-new clinic. However, as these friends of 15 years greet each day of 2021, there is hope, gratitude, resilience and more importantly, a vision for their clinic that has not diminished.
“We started this business over 10 years ago during a recession when everyone told us we shouldn’t. They told us that our model would fail, but we didn’t believe them. We had a dream and we set out to do what we wanted to do,” explains McPeek.
That dream was inspired by one special cat, Mr. Houston. McPeek, who turned to integrative care to support her own battle with cancer years before, brought him to Dr. Brown for care when he was 16. He went on to live to age 22. At the time, it was hard to find a vet who was practicing integrative medicine. The pair set out to change that, and Harmony was born.
“When we started planning for our expansion four years ago, we could never have imagined a pandemic was coming, said Dr. Brown. “It got tough, but we said to each other, ‘We made it once, we can do it again.’”
“COVID hit while we were financing land and attending closings,” shares McPeek. “Business dropped 40% in the second quarter of 2020 because of the pandemic, but it comes down to planning and vision. I believe very strongly in what we can be when we are not overly stressed by the changes that came about in 2020.”
A Challenging Year
Between supply chain disruptions, medical supply backorders and new COVID protocols, the staff carried a heavy load just to keep the clinic moving in 2020. Curbside service alone triples the number of phone calls the front desk has to manage. Adding to pandemic difficulties were building delays. The new clinic’s July 1 finish date was moved to July 31 and while the initial build took six months, the final punch list took another six months. Operating in crisis mode forced them to delay putting into place the quality control systems they had before the move.
“I mean, how do you find TP for eighteen people?” joked McPeek.
But in all seriousness, while the pair are full of gratitude for the clients that kept their doors open, McPeek and Dr. Brown are quick to admit they have not been at their best in the last six months. It is a truth that hurts to say out loud, but looking at the obstacles, it’s easy to understand why. So many policy changes, delays and pivots take a toll on staff members. Harmony has faced five major quarantines and staff leaves since July, one of which lasted eight weeks. They have and continue to work short-staffed; any way you look at it, that alone limits the ability to meet client needs and their demands.
“We hear you. We feel your pain when we can’t get you in because the schedule is so full. We simply have to prioritize the most urgent, most critical patients first, while still fitting everybody in,” explains McPeek. “We are asking for kindness and patience with our front desk as they juggle everyone’s needs in a very challenging environment.”
“This isn’t fun for us,” admits Dr. Brown. “It’s frustrating to not have our clients come into the clinic. This is traditionally a place where humans can decompress and connect with their pet, but instead they are sitting in cars and we are caring for their furbaby. We’re really missing the client contact we’ve always had, as well as the fun. We miss our friends and the joy of seeing them with their pets inside.”
Despite all the setbacks, the new year gives Harmony hope. “What has kept us going is the vision we have for this practice. To be a premier integrative hospital, you have to keep your dedication to the process,” explains McPeek.
As they head into 2021 in a newly completed building, that means fully implementing their quality control and customer care systems and improving processes initially developed in crisis mode. “Curbside service protects staff and patients, but it inhibits the ability to connect with the client. We are looking for ways to bring our human clients back into the exam room, even if virtually,” McPeek shares.
They’ve also constructed pergolas in the Harmony Garden to which they will add a shade component to create outdoor exam rooms. “We built this hospital as a center for animal wellness as well as a place where our community can gather, and we’re excited to start building in those components,” says Dr. Brown.
First on the list? A shaded reading corner and exploratory garden in the back yard where kids will be able to read with Sadie, Lexie’s sister, who is currently being certified as a service dog. Also in the new backyard, they hope to start puppy socialization classes in the spring, and a gardening club is on the horizon with a focus on plants that are supportive of both pets and the environment.
Inside the building, the staff is up and running with new cloud-based software, internet and phone systems. A new veterinarian, Dr. Carly Stephens, is starting in February. “It took 18 months to find her,” says McPeek, “but we wanted to take our time to find the right fit.” Coming from a similar clinic in North Carolina, Dr. Stephens’ focus is surgery and dentistry as well as general practice.
Knowing how long it took to find Dr. Stephens, McPeek and Dr. Brown are already continuing the search for additional doctors and nurses, both of which are in short supply right now. “It’s challenging to interview in COVID especially when you can’t bring individuals in for working interviews, but we’ve learned from our past mistakes and we are committed to finding providers who believe in the Harmony approach. We have to search for the right staff who are community minded and will take the time to listen.”
With a new doctor on board, McPeek hopes to get Dr. Brown and Dr. Chris dedicated to traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and herbs a few days per week. Explains Dr. Brown, “In our practice, we do a lot of traditional medicine, but we like to bring in the integrative pieces so that we build the body back up and support it to heal itself. We certainly do that if there’s been a crisis, but we also want the bandwidth to be more proactive in our approach. Getting past COVID and the build will allow us to do that.”
After a difficult year, the pair is shifting their focus forward. “We are going to create what we set out to create,” says Dr. Brown. Their community will be a big part of that. After all, “it was a banker with community ties who believed in our vision in 2010 as a start-up and again in 2019 when we wanted to grow.”
With that kind of support behind them, the pair are looking forward to their new associate vet getting to know everyone like they do. Explains Dr. Brown, “We are grateful for our clients, for every setback in 2020, for every high hurdle. It was our client’s encouragement that pulled us through.”
At the start of this new year, they have hope, they have gratitude and they are steadfast in their commitment to build a community-minded animal hospital full of love and hope and healing. That is Harmony and we think Mr. Houston would be proud.