Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Story of the Barn

In Celebration of Our Thirtieth Year: Looking Back to Our Beginnings

"We're the big white barn with green trim and white silos. You can't miss us." You will overhear this phrase regularly at VCA VRA when receptionists give directions to potential clients. There is no better way to describe us. In 1981, Veterinary Referral Associates, Inc. in Gaithersburg, Maryland was one of the first referral-only veterinary hospitals in the world. We were located in a dairy barn then, and though many know us now as the "Johns Hopkins of veterinary medicine," we remain in the barn today.

The story of our practice begins in 1974, when the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school decided to try something new. They began programs to teach young veterinarians desirous of pursuing specialties. They called these courses of study 'residencies' to mimic human medicine. Ken Cowell became the second orthopedic resident at U Penn and Steve Steinberg, the first neurology resident. Since there was not an established protocol, residents worked alongside contemporaries who were called instructors, associates or fellows. The lines for education in specialty medicine were poorly drawn. All of the residencies offered at that time were of a two-year duration and in 1976 Dr. Steinberg stayed on at Penn as an Associate Instructor while Dr. Ken Cowell went on to a surgical practice.

Concurrently, some innovative veterinary practitioners formed a partnership and opened one of the first emergency veterinary hospitals in the country in Rockville, Maryland. It was known as Metropolitan Emergency Animal Clinic (MEAC) and still thrives today. Three of the owners of MEAC determined that specialization could be the wave of the future and since their building was not utilized during the day, they decided to lease the space. Thus, a meeting was set up between Steinberg and Cowell (who had become the best of friends) and the owners of MEAC, who assured the young doctors that the Washington DC area was the best place for 'instant success' in their field. Since, at that time, both doctors were making approximately $7,000.00 per year and borrowed clothing for their initial interview, they would have had a difficult time recognizing 'failure.'

On October 1, 1977, H. Steven Steinberg, VMD and Kenneth R. Cowell, DVM, A Professional Association was formed. They became known as 'Steinberg & Cowell' almost immediately. On November 1, 1977, they opened their doors at MEAC and grossed $125,000.00 the first year. They each received $17,000.00 in compensation and were 'wealthy' by their standards.

Steinberg and Cowell continued to grow at a fast pace. In fact, they rapidly grew too large for the MEAC facility where they habitually boxed up their equipment at night and re-positioned in the morning.

In 1980, Steve Steinberg was driving up a small two-lane road (Route 28) about ten miles from MEAC. He passed one of the most unique structures in Montgomery County, the old Garrett Farmhouse and Barn. The barn currently housed a small veterinary practice. The principal doctor, and owner, Danny Denham (who had referred cases to Steinberg & Cowell), was outside leaning on the fence and Steve stopped to chat. In the course of conversation, he complained about being so cramped at MEAC and Dr. Denham, who was moving to Oklahoma, suggested Steve buy the building.

In 1981, the barn was Steve and Ken's new home. Soon after, they added an internal medicine specialist and in July, 1981, Dr. David Saylor, soft tissue surgeon, came on board. Dr. Saylor is the current Medical Director at VCA VRA.

Unfortunately, in 1984, Dr. Ken Cowell left veterinary medicine to pursue other interests. With the transition, came a new name, Veterinary Referral Associates, Inc. Through the years, VRA continued to enlarge and doctors with many other specialties joined its ranks. Specialists from the US and Europe spent time studying in the hospital and spent time studying the hospital, in hopes of developing something similar in their homeland.

In 1995, VRA was known as one of the nation's largest and most progressive referral hospitals. Therefore, it was not surprising that Dr. Steinberg was approached by numerous groups wishing to purchase the practice. In May of 1995, Dr. Bruce Ilgen and Mr. Bob Antin, representing Veterinary Centers of America, came to Gaithersburg for a lunchtime meeting with Steve.

On February 1, 1996, Steinberg & Cowell, later known as Veterinary Referral Associates, Inc., now evolved into VCA VRA.

*As a footnote, the Maryland Historical Trust describes the barn as follows: "The dairy barn (circa 1879) has been adaptively used for a veterinary clinic, yet retains much of its original character. The barn is much larger than average, featuring four large metal roof ventilators and two handsome tile silos."

We have modernized the insides, but retained the shell 'as is.' The barn is a perfect place to treat animals in need, with surrounds that are warm and inviting for their owners.


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