When Chris Snyder assumed the role of associate dean for clinical affairs and teaching hospital director this June at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM), he came full circle on a journey that began 16 years ago.
Snyder joined UW Veterinary Care in 2005 for residency training in veterinary dentistry and oral surgery. His residency mentor was veterinary dentist Bill Gengler, who at the time held the associate dean role that Snyder now fills. Today, Snyder is even more convinced of something he believed then: educators can have an immense impact on veterinary patients and practitioners.
“The ability to positively impact patients’ lives by empowering others is more far-reaching than anything I could provide to a patient on my own,” he says.
A clinical professor in Dentistry and Oral Surgery at the SVM, Snyder is also heavily involved with educational development for the American Veterinary Dental College and AO North America, part of
a global network of specialized surgeons who provide training opportunities for other surgeons.
Below, Snyder shares more about his background and vision for serving those within and beyond the school.
On Call: What brought you to veterinary medicine initially and dentistry specifically?
Snyder: Both of my parents were in medicine. I started to volunteer in a
small animal clinic when I was in college and gravitated toward the aspects of veterinary medicine where you had the instant gratification of getting in there, working through a problem, and fixing it right away.
Even in college, if you could cut me loose to clean teeth all day long, I was happy because you took something that looked pretty crummy to start and looked great when you were done. Opportunities like that are why dentistry was a natural fit for me.
What do you enjoy about working within a teaching hospital?
I take the education that I’ve worked hard for very seriously as far as how it can impact patient health, the human-animal bond, and the quality
of life for each pet and their overall relationship with their family.
I’ve also enjoyed working with the students and have latched on to the notion that you can help more patients by being a good teacher. I recognize that I can touch so many more patient and family lives by teaching students than I can by practicing on my own.
What are you looking forward to with this new role?
What most excites me is the opportunity to work with faculty and staff to figure out what they enjoy most, how they get the most satisfaction out of working with the patients they interact with on a routine basis, and what I can do to help make that experience better, more efficient, or help them see more of those types of cases. At the end of the day, even if I didn’t necessarily interact with patients on a one-on-one basis, I can feel good that I did touch patients’ and families’ lives by working through others. It’s that empowerment piece.
What are some of your initial goals?
The ultimate goal is to make sure students have an experience in the clinic that makes them proficient and capable of practicing as a veterinarian when they graduate, so I’ll preserve and try to help grow that experience.
Another big piece is helping arm our faculty and staff with the tools to communicate and teach, which is an evolving, growing process. I see the
teaching hospital as a living being in itself, so to speak. You have to check in, watch the vital parameters, and feed it in those areas where growth can occur.
For our hospital clients and patients, I think a patient visit is a success when that animal’s owner or family is made to feel like their animal was the most important patient in the hospital that day. From the first interaction with hospital phone staff, through meeting the medical team and extending to discharge, top-notch, team-oriented patient care is our goal. No matter how well we think we provide that, we should always look for ways to improve. That’s another critical priority.
Is there anything about the teaching hospital that you think the public might not be aware of?
Everything that happens in the hospital is very team-oriented and there’s always a group involved in patient care and medical decision-making. Depending on the procedure, we might bring different specialty minds together.
Sometimes, for our referring veterinarians and clients, I think that team idea can be difficult or foreign because you want to gravitate toward one person and have that familiarity. But it’s a tremendous resource when you bring together so many people who are frequently on the cutting edge of development and investigation. That’s what’s distinct about the UW and what we have to offer.
What do you enjoy outside of work?
Being a dual veterinarian couple [Snyder’s wife, Lindsey, is a clinical instructor in anesthesia and pain management with the SVM], we certainly have an overabundance of animals. We’ve got a little bit of everything at home — two dogs, two parrots, two cockatiels, two leopard geckos, one snake, a southern flying squirrel, and a hermit crab.
I enjoy the time I’ve spent coaching my kids (ages 10 and 12) in ice hockey and enjoy photography and woodworking. Being able to build things and work with my hands, I think that’s probably a common pastime across many veterinarians who enjoy dentistry or surgery.
Reflecting on a Decade at the Helm
Over more than a decade in the role of associate dean for clinical affairs, Ruthanne Chun DVM’91 launched new initiatives, expanded UW Veterinary Care’s reach and capacity, and confronted the unforeseen.
From the outset in 2010, Chun spurred efforts to raise awareness of the hospital and reinforce its positive reputation on campus, in Wisconsin, and beyond. “One of the first things I did was to try to solidify our image, both internally and externally, letting folks know who we are, why we exist, and what we do under the umbrella of the School of Veterinary Medicine,” she recalls.
Under Chun’s tenure, several new programs came to fruition focused on public service and access to care. These range from a statewide effort to provide credited and discounted services at UW Veterinary Care for police dogs across Wisconsin to the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic, which provides veterinary medical care, housing support and advocacy, and other services to Dane County pet owners who are low-income, or experiencing or at risk of homelessness or housing insecurity.
“You can’t find somebody more passionate, compassionate, and empathetic than Ruthanne,” says School of Veterinary Medicine Dean Mark Markel. “I’ve valued her leadership tremendously.”
Chun also oversaw a range of hospital expansion and remodeling efforts — repurposing janitor closets, locker rooms, and every possible square foot — to bolster clinical services. And she strengthened opportunities for interprofessional education and collaboration across the university’s health sciences schools.
“We can always be better at understanding what the other person needs, their expectations, and how we can communicate more clearly, more quickly, more compassionately. There’s always something we can strive for, and that’s what we want to do.”
Most recently, Chun guided the hospital through the COVID-19 pandemic. From March 2020 onward, she helped faculty and staff navigate the stress and strain of rapidly changing protocols and procedures, inspiring them to persevere for students, patients, clients, and referring veterinarians.
“One of the things I’ve recognized as both hospital director and throughout this entire COVID period is that change is constant,” she notes. “Change happens, then more change needs to happen, and it is this never-ending cycle.”
“That’s how I view our work with external constituents, too — it can always be better,” she adds. “We can always be better at understanding what the other person needs, their expectations, and how we can communicate more clearly, quickly, or compassionately. There’s always something we can strive for, and that’s what we want to do.”
In recognition of her many contributions across campus and statewide, in June, Chun was honored with UW-Madison’s LaMarr Billups Community–University Engagement Award.
Chun will return to her role on the school faculty as a clinical professor of oncology. A board-certified veterinary oncologist and current president for the subspecialty of Oncology within the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, she is passionate about the teaching and practice of clinical oncology. She also teaches communication and empathy skills within the veterinary medical curriculum.
Reflecting on her time as hospital director, she is struck by her colleagues’ steadfast commitment.
“We have amazing people who work for us who are so incredibly dedicated,” she says. “We’re in this because we care about animals, and we want to help them and their people. And we’re incredibly proud to be a teaching facility.”
This article appears in the summer 2021 issue of On Call magazine.