Pregnancy in Practice

Veterinarians share their stories
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Practicing while pregnant is not as difficult as practicing while raising young children, according to many veterinarians who have done both recently.

Nevertheless, veterinarians as well as veterinary technicians and other personnel face risks and other challenges while pregnant in practice. Because of the risks, they usually tell co-workers about the pregnancy very early, when a miscarriage is more likely.

Depending on the circumstances, some pregnant veterinarians need make only minor modifications to their duties, while others must make major changes. They also have to sort out the logistics of maternity leave, returning to work, and breast-feeding.

“Since I had my kids a bit earlier than my friends did, I felt like no one had ever done it before,” said Dr. Emily T. Luisana, mother of two. “Anytime someone says that they’re pregnant, I want to take them under my wing.”

She noted that most veterinarians earn their degrees and establish their careers at “prime kid-having time.” She said, “I think that can make both more challenging.”

Five small animal practitioners from across the country shared stories of how they handled the trials and tribulations of practicing while pregnant. A large animal practitioner also told her tale (see bottom of page).

Dr. Luisana, North Carolina

Dr. Luisana (North Carolina State ’10) was still a veterinary student when she had her first child.

She found out she was pregnant three weeks into her fourth year. She rescheduled her on-call rotations before her due date and radiology afterward. Everyone was flexible.

Dr. Luisana
Dr. Emily T. Luisana during her second pregnancy (Photo by John Luisana)

Day-to-day reality turned out to be harder, starting with the morning sickness. She said, “Like many other women in their first trimesters, I was very sick but outwardly looked normal. So I came off feeling unimpressive.”

Being on her feet and lifting patients became difficult. After a long day of rotations, she remembers having an internal debate on the couch at home when she was hungry but her feet hurt too much to walk to the kitchen.

If she could do things over, she would put more limitations on herself and be a better advocate for herself. She said, “At the time, I made it a point to never use my pregnancy as an excuse. In retrospect, I don’t think that benefited anyone.”

Dr. Luisana had her son in early 2010. She returned to rotations after six weeks, making time to pump breast milk. She was proud to graduate only a month late.

She became an associate at a small animal practice in Delaware and later in North Carolina. Then she and her husband had their second child, a daughter born in June 2013.

The North Carolina hospital was small, and the pregnancy was inconvenient for the practice. Dr. Luisana was hospitalized for a few days early in her pregnancy but never missed another day.

She said, “Overall, I think veterinary medicine is not unfriendly to pregnancy. But besides workplace hazards, we also have to contend with ourselves. Veterinarians tend to have a Type A personality. We work hard and equate skipping lunch with job commitment. So it’s a transition to start taking care of yourself during a busy workday in the many little ways pregnancy requires you to—and another challenge to verbalize that to an employer or co-worker.”

During her second pregnancy, she did take steps to make life easier and safer. These included sitting down during appointments, napping every lunch hour, and postponing certain radiographic procedures. She avoided tasks that made her nauseous, induction of and recovery from anesthesia, fractious patients, and potential carriers of zoonoses.

In late 2013, Dr. Luisana began partnering with her childhood veterinarian, who is looking to retire, as co-owner of Pet House Calls in Raleigh, North Carolina. They both work part time, allowing Dr. Luisana more time to spend with her children.

Dr. Bartle, Tennessee

Dr. Laura Bartle (North Carolina State ’10), a classmate of Dr. Luisana, had both of her children while working as an associate at Family Pet Hospital in Clarksville, Tennessee.

She worked full time before the birth of her first son in August 2011 and took 12 weeks of maternity leave. She began working part time starting a month before the birth of her second son in June 2013 and went back to work after seven weeks, remaining part time.

Dr. Bartle and son
Dr. Laura Bartle with her first son while pregnant with her second (Photo by Desiree McDaniel

“My boss was the second person I told,” Dr. Bartle said. “I found out at four weeks pregnant with both of the babies and wanted to let her know to have her support at work. I did not tell my other co-workers till 12 weeks. All were very supportive and always allotted time for doctors’ appointments.”

Dr. Bartle had minimal complications with both pregnancies. She said the veterinary technicians were great at helping her by lifting large dogs and taking radiographs.

I didn’t slow down one bit and worked until my water broke at work with my first,” she said. “I did get intense carpal tunnel with my second and had to stop performing surgery about two weeks before he was born.”

Pumping breast milk was somewhat difficult, even though the husband-and-wife practice owners were supportive.

“I divided my lunch hour throughout the day into two to three 20-minute pumping sessions and would eat or work on medical records while pumping,” she said. “It was just hard to break away from a busy clinic. But by dividing up my lunch hour, I tried to keep it fair to the other practitioners.”

After the birth of her second son, Dr. Bartle worked two and a half to three and a half days per week, along with being on call for emergencies one night a week and one weekend a month. She later moved back to North Carolina, where she works two days a week at a private practice.

Dr. Hansen, California

Dr. Robin Hansen (Illinois ’11) was commuting three hours a day to her job as an associate at a small animal private practice in San Francisco when she got pregnant.

Dr. Hansen with her cat
Dr. Robin Hansen, 35 weeks pregnant, poses for a photo with her cat. (Photo by Eric Hansen)

During the second trimester, she developed an arrhythmia that she attributed to stress. She took a few days off, and the arrhythmia went away. She moved closer to work at about five months pregnant. 

“That was a wake-up call to me that I needed to be paying attention to my body and what I needed and to take a break when I need it,” she said.

“I needed to separate my work from my home a little bit more and not be dwelling on the work issues so much once I was at home,” she continued. “I don’t remember doing anything really all that different but just being more mindful of how my work was affecting my emotions. Your hormones are all over the place, so it’s hard sometimes to parse that out.”

Dr. Hansen and daughter
Dr. Robin Hansen waits with her daughter to visit Santa. (Photo by Eric Hansen)

Dr. Hansen felt insecure as a new graduate, and “pregnancy brain” made her forgetful. Sleep was elusive in the third trimester. Yet, the veterinary technicians were right there whenever she asked for help, and she kept snacks handy so she could eat when she fell behind.

She stopped working three weeks before her due date and gave birth to her daughter a week late in August 2014. Hearing loss was diagnosed in her daughter. Dr. Hansen said, “I could foresee that I would be having to do a lot extra for her.”

Dr. Hansen had planned to go back to work after eight weeks, working two days a week. Instead, she went back after 12 weeks, working one day a week and some Saturdays. She has been able to nurse her daughter during her lunch break.

Dr. Flynn, Vermont

Dr. Hannah Flynn (Pennsylvania ’05), a Vermont small animal practitioner, conceived her two daughters with the assistance of fertility specialists.

Given her year-plus planning leading in, everybody knew right away the first time she got pregnant. She was working full time at an emergency clinic, doing three shifts a week that extended overnight. It was a pretty easy pregnancy until the end.

Dr. Flynn's daughter with family dog
Dr. Hannah Flynn’s first daughter with one of the family dogs (Photo by Dr. Hannah Flynn)

At week 36, she went down to one shift and stopped overnights. She quit working about three weeks before her due date after developing pre-eclampsia.

Labor was induced two weeks before her due date, and she gave birth to her first daughter in October 2011. She returned to work on a two-shift schedule after seven weeks, waiting a few more weeks before going back to overnights.

“I pumped every three hours, through the night,” she said. “Rarely did things get pushed around a bit or clients have to wait 15 minutes.”

Dr. Flynn went on to a job as a full-time associate at Onion River Animal Hospital in Middlesex, Vermont.

“I was about six weeks pregnant when I accepted the job, and given my history of trouble getting pregnant, I did not tell them when I accepted the job but a month later,” she said. “That was a very difficult decision.”

It was a much harder pregnancy because she developed symphysis pubis dysfunction, making moving painful. She soldiered on but moved slowly. Her water broke five days before her due date, and she gave birth to her second daughter in February 2014.

After eight weeks, she returned to work full time, again pumping breast milk. She was still pumping at 10 months. The Onion River Animal Hospital has received recognition from the Vermont Department of Health as a breast-feeding–friendly employer.

Dr. Grott, Illinois

Dr. Anne Grott (Purdue ’02), an associate at Dundee Animal Hospital in suburban Chicago, is having a baby at age 39 after being in practice for more than 12 years. At press time, her due date was Jan. 22.

She married her husband when they were both in their late 20s, and they tried to have a baby. In their late 30s, they tried again, this time successfully.

Dr. Grott with hospital cat
Dr. Anne Grott, six weeks from her due date, holds the hospital cat at the Elgin location of Dundee Animal Hospital near Chicago. (Photo by Katie Burns)

Dr. Grott told a couple of co-workers about the pregnancy right away and everyone else at work after her first doctor’s appointment. She said, “It’s hard to tell your co-workers before you tell your own family.”

She bowed out of surgery. She said members of the staff have been great, lifting things and helping handle animals. Six weeks before her due date, she was snacking and napping frequently, wearing support hose and a belly band, and sitting instead of standing when typing.

Getting on the floor with animals became harder. She said that, at the examination table, ”Your belly bumps into the table before you’re used to it, and you can’t get quite as close to the animals.”

She describes herself as a “slow runner,” and she continued to run while pregnant. She half walked a half-marathon at five months and walked another half-marathon at seven months.

Dr. Grott planned to work until her due date and take six weeks off to recover. Her husband will be the primary caregiver and stay home for 12 weeks. They plan to stagger their schedules so the baby is in day care only two or three days a week.

They decided not to find out whether the baby is a boy or a girl.

During an ultrasound examination, Dr. Grott accidentally reverted to her veterinary background. She told the technician, “When you get back by the tail and the back feet, tell me so I can close my eyes.”

Large animal practitioner takes difficult pregnancies in stride

Dr. Alison Cornwall (California-Davis ’07) has been a large animal practitioner in Vermont through three increasingly difficult pregnancies.

After earning her veterinary degree, Dr. Cornwall signed on with a practice partner. When she got pregnant, her biggest issues on the job were being tired and her clients worrying about her safety as well as her availability.

Dr. Cornwall with daughter and mother
Dr. Alison Cornwall, an ambulatory large animal practitioner in Vermont, brought her daughter with her to work until the baby was 12 weeks old. Her mom, Kathy Dawson, accompanied them in the truck. (Photo by Naomi LaBarr)

“I felt like it was reasonably safe,” she said. “It’s just physically demanding.”

She remembers that, one day when she came home late, “I was taking my shoes off and apparently I fell asleep while taking my shoes off because I woke up on the stairs with my head against the wall with one boot off and one boot still on.”

She did worry about the risks of the job, particularly when she was knocked around by animals. She quit using dimethyl sulfoxide and chemotherapeutic agents entirely and was careful about other potentially harmful drugs. With potential zoonoses, she sent in samples from animals or herself for testing. When an animal had an abortion, she went all out with protection.

She stopped working a week before having her first son in November 2009, and she took eight weeks off after the delivery. With all three of her babies, she pumped breast milk in her truck between calls.

Dr. Cornwall was pregnant with her second child when she and her practice partner parted ways. She became a solo practitioner in 2011.

“I love working with animals, and I love being outside, and I love solving problems,” she said. Being self-employed means she can make her schedule accommodate family commitments. She said, “As well as being flexible, sometimes it’s also relentless.”

She hemorrhaged during delivery of her second child. As she was wheeled to surgery, her husband held her phone to her ear so she could counsel a client with a colicky donkey.

In April 2011, she gave birth to her second son. She couldn’t walk at first because of the blood loss, yet went back to work three and a half weeks later.

She hemorrhaged repeatedly during her third pregnancy. She felt fine, and the baby was fine, but she kept having to be hospitalized.

She gave birth to a healthy daughter in April 2014, but things took a turn for the worse during the delivery. Dr. Cornwall received 55 units of blood during nine and a half hours in surgery, and the doctors had to remove her uterus.

Having been gone so much during pregnancy, she went back to work after 12 days. She said, “I think getting back and doing all the physical work of practice made my recovery go really well, if a bit uncomfortable in the beginning.”

For almost a year now, Dr. Cornwall has been trying to balance being a solo practitioner and raising three young children.

“Pregnancy in general is sort of hard, but the truth is it’s way easier to take care of the child when she’s in your belly than it is when you get her out—and now you have a baby to take care of and try to do the job,” Dr. Cornwall said.

Dr. Alison Cornwall, an ambulatory large animal practitioner in Vermont, brought her daughter with her to work until the baby was 12 weeks old. Her mom, Kathy Dawson, accompanied them in the truck.

Related JAVMA content:

Motherhood and veterinary medicine (April 1, 2013)