Generations of Auburn vet med alumni keep family practice running, celebrate golden anniversary

Published: July 05, 2019
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If the old adage was true, and dogs truly aged at seven times the rate as humans, the Hueytown Veterinary Clinic would be entering its 350th year of operating as a family practice—an Auburn Family practice.

Located in the town known for the legendary NASCAR Allison family and the Alabama Gang, the Hueytown Veterinary Clinic has also been a champion—so to speak—for pet owners in the Birmingham metropolitan area.

Fifty years ago, when Bobby and Donnie Allison were first bursting onto the NASCAR scene and a monstrous behemoth emerged from the ground in Talladega, another facility in Hueytown was emerging that would make an indelible mark on the people, and pets, in the community.

David Hayes, a 1967 alumnus of Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, grew up in the rural area on a farm with every type of animal imaginable. When the animals would inevitably need care, David’s father would tend to them or he would call Howard Hayes, a relative who owned a veterinary practice in neighboring Bessemer. Seeing Howard work with the animals piqued an early interest for David.

“Watching him deliver calves, goats and piglets, along with repairing lacerations and injured hooves, created an early desire for me to follow his career path when I grew up,” David said.

After graduating from Alabama College—now known as the University of Montevallo—in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry, and having been an avid Auburn fan since the first day he could remember, he headed south to the Plains to a place that still stirs emotions to this day.

“I never considered applying to any other school,” David said. “As I look back on my educational experience at Auburn, my heart fills with joy. I had so many truly great people as mentors and was so blessed and privileged to be taught by Dr. Wilford Bailey, Dr. Frank Hoerlein, Dr. Don Walker and Dr. Tom Vaughan, just to name a few. I don’t have the words to adequately express how I feel about being a part of the Auburn Family. Other than my family and my personal faith, Auburn is the greatest blessing of my life.”

After earning his veterinary medicine degree in 1967, he had another calling in life—this time from Uncle Sam. David was drafted during the height of the Vietnam War, and served two years with the U.S. Air Force. Upon his discharge, he returned to Hueytown and began building a practice. Although he sold his interest in the practice to friend and fraternity brother Jerry Champion, a 1969 veterinary medicine alumnus, the two joined forces to form the Hueytown Veterinary Clinic. In 1974, although they limited the practice to solely small animals, their impact on the community only grew larger and larger.

“The Auburn veterinary school highly encouraged veterinarians to stay in state and serve Alabamians,” Jerry said. “So it’s been very rewarding. Any time you have the opportunity to serve your community and friends for 50 years, it’s a great thing.”

David agreed, “Growing up in Hueytown, I was familiar with the area and knew many of the old families that founded the city. Both Jerry and I fit in well with the local population and with the business community, both our families were members of local churches and we were well accepted by everyone.

“We always felt blessed that we served people we knew and people our families had known for decades. It was truly special when former classmates and teachers visited our clinic, and we were even blessed to serve the famous Allison, Bonnett and Farmer racing families. It has been an indescribable blessing to serve those who, in many respects, helped to raise me and form my philosophy of living through service.”

The Next Generation

Twenty years after the Hueytown Veterinary Clinic refocused its effort on small animals only, its practice had grown large enough to add another doctor. So, in 1996, Jerry’s son, Blake, came aboard.

“I never had thoughts of doing anything other than to come home,” said Blake, a 1996 Auburn veterinary medicine alumnus. “From the moment I made the decision to pursue this career, I knew I was coming home.”

Like his dad and David, Blake was an Auburn man from the day he was born. However, it wasn’t until his sophomore year on the Plains when he decided to follow in his dad’s shoes.

“Veterinary medicine was who we were when I was a kid. I never thought about it for myself until dad brought it up as a possibility,” said Blake. “I think he probably pushed me away from the idea when I was growing up, so as not to influence me, letting me make my own path. I always knew I wanted to do something in medicine, so when I finally made the decision, I never questioned it.” 

The Auburn Family practice in Hueytown expanded again nine years later when Blake’s cousin, Jeremy Birchfield, a 2005 veterinary medicine alumnus, came aboard.

“For me, it was a no-brainier. I have always been close to my family and loved the thought of joining them,” Jeremy said. “I was so proud, as a child, to claim my uncle and cousin were local, practicing veterinarians that worked daily to help the pet owners and animals of our area. I wanted the reward of knowing I, too, would be doing work that could help the people and pets of our community.”

In addition, Blake’s wife, Crystal, now serves as the practice’s manager.

“I don’t know what it would be like for this practice to not be family. It has always been that way for me. Dr. Hayes and dad were partners when I was born, I went to school and grew up with his kids, my mom worked as a receptionist for dad when I was a kid and now Jeremy and I are partners. With us being first cousins and Crystal serving as our practice manager, it’s not just a job that I have to go to every day,” Blake said. “Veterinary medicine is, and has always been, the fabric of my family. Our conversations about the clinic, our clients, patients, successes and failures are as common at the dinner table, holidays and birthday parties as they are at the office. For me, it has been the greatest blessing of my career.”

A New Day

In August 2018, Jerry passed away at the age of 74 after a short, but hard-fought, battle with brain cancer.

While his passing left a hole in the community that will never be filled, his legacy lives on through the new 11,000-square-foot Hueytown Veterinary Clinic that was unveiled in March 2018, just months before his death.

For Blake and Jeremy, this new facility will honor the work established by David and Jerry, and build on it for at least another half century.

The new facility was built with the community in mind, offering the gamut of pet care.

“New ideals in veterinary care and how pets should be housed and cared for while staying with us, during sickness and hospitalization, as well as while their owners are away and need some place safe for their pets, were the primary driving forces that encouraged our vision,” Jeremy said.

The design has completely separate areas for medical and boarding needs. The medical areas have been retrofitted to triple the size of the previous facility, including eight examination tables. The clinic has doubled the number of examination rooms to eight, while also doubling the size of each room. The radiology room is centrally located between the critical care and isolation wards to ease access, and the surgical suite is located at one end of the treatment room. Two operating tables, gas anesthesia machines and anesthetic monitoring systems are visible from across the room on wall mounted 55-inch displays. Doctors’ offices are positioned in a “fish bowl,” providing an almost 360-degree line of sight overseeing the care and handling of the patients within the treatment room, as well as visualization of the animals housed in the sick animal wards. 

On the other side of the clinic, the Pet Lodge employs a full-time trainer who oversees group play activities for dogs. Many other assistants help in walking, feeding, bathing and cleaning the multiple areas for the visiting or boarded animals. The canine enclosures are glass-fronted in order to provide maximum visibility for the dogs. All enclosures have rubber flooring. A spacious indoor play/training room allows guests to play off-leash, including an area to hold group and individual training lessons.

The backyard consists of more than 2 acres of fenced green space, with multiple segregated yards that allow for different size and disposition pets to enjoy off-leash play with other guests that have similar traits and characteristics. Fresh water pools within the play yards allow for pets to cool off, splash and play as sprinklers spray. More than 3,000 feet of walking track surrounds the perimeter of the play yards—half of which runs the hilltop—to facilitate pets, as well as guests who wish to watch from above. A pond for dog water training and swimming is included and is flanked on one side by a sandy beach. The pond also serves as a reservoir for the clinic’s irrigation system in order to keep the nearly 3 acres of grass and shrubbery watered without the expense of using city water.

For the feline guests, a completely segregated room with glass-faced enclosures has been included to enhance the tranquility of a cat’s stay. There is a cat play room filled with an artificial tree and wall shelving for guests to climb, toys to play with and fish to observe in order to provide greater enrichment opportunities.  

The spacious redesigned reception area was designed to facilitate the utmost efficiency with a receptionist for each the hospital, lodging and customer service areas. 

Since the addition of the new facility, the practice has also added another member of the Auburn Family—McKenzie George, a 2017 veterinary medicine alumna, joined the team in June 2018. The practice’s first female veterinarian was drawn to the family dynamic and community feel that surrounded the clinic.

“As a recent graduate coming from an emergency room environment, also having worked with zoo and exotic animals, I was looking to go somewhere where I could be mentored, and Blake and Jeremy have been just that,” said McKenzie. “The way they’ve converted their traditional clinic into a state-of-the-art animal hospital and boarding facility, all while maintaining that ‘mom-and-pop’ feel, has been quite exciting to watch and be a small part of.”

What started off as call to service for a few hometown boys has grown into one of the state’s most comprehensive animal care facilities, all born out of the Plains.

“I am proud and privileged to have been a part of the practice in its formative and growing years, and I look forward with eager anticipation to an outstanding future for this new facility and it’s beautifully qualified and prepared staff,” David said.

For Jerry, he was extremely proud of this state-of-the-art, game-changing facility—even working, doing what he could, in his final months up until the end. But it was the time spent with his family—and extended Auburn Family—and their hard work to make this new dream a reality that he cherished most.

“The highlight of my career has been watching my son take over my practice and improving it in such a grand way. Blake and Jeremy are taking this practice to a new and exciting level. I am very proud to have been a part of its beginning,” Jerry said just months before his passing. “The future for comprehensive veterinary care in this state looks very bright.”

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