Moms meet up at conference of their own

Organizer wanted emphasis on mental health support, wellness

A new conference took place earlier this year that catered to a specific group of veterinarians: moms.

The percentage of women in the veterinary profession has been on a decadeslong increasing trajectory, recently reaching 64%, according to the 2020 AVMA Census of Veterinarians. That’s up from 54% in 2012. Many of these women are or will become mothers. Still others may struggle with fertility or serve as caregivers to children. In all cases, they share one thing in common—a mother’s heart.

Support networks have since sprung up to support this subset of veterinarians. Perhaps the largest and most influential is the DVMoms Facebook group, which was created, according to the group description, “with the intention of providing support, empathy, commiseration and humor between women who are all struggling to find balance and sanity in work, motherhood, and life.” It now totals more than 16,000 members and has spawned many offshoots and subgroups.

Christian Veterinary Moms
The Christian Veterinary Moms enjoy dessert together at sunset during the Veterinary Encouragement Conference, held during the last weekend of April. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Jen Bonovich)

Around the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Julie Buzby, a member of the DVMoms group who has eight kids with her husband, Tim, began planning the conference in her hometown of Beaufort, South Carolina, as a way to combat the feelings of isolation among members. She and the staff at her company, Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips, for dogs, put in many hours to get the conference off the ground. “It was 5 billion times more intense than I had anticipated,” she said with a laugh.

The Veterinary Encouragement Conference wasn’t the first gathering for the Facebook group as other members organized a continuing education cruise and a few events in Asheville, North Carolina. Dr. Buzby herself had organized group dinners at the annual Veterinary Meeting & Expo in Orlando, Florida, as well as a mom prom. But she wanted a conference that addressed the struggles she and others have with discouragement.

“I thought, ‘OK, maybe we can do better as a profession (addressing our) pain and issues with mental health and wellness,’” she said. “Maybe when we get together, we can focus on healing and caring for one another in our community.”

The conference, held during the last weekend in April in Beaufort, South Carolina, drew around 250 attendees from 39 states and Canada, and more participated online. Sponsors included Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Shepherd Veterinary Software, Virbac, Heska, National Veterinary Associates, and the AVMA. Many conference-goers came in early for the optional Thursday activities, including a beach day at Hunting Island. Some also chose to participate in the “Race at Your Own Pace 5K” that day, including a few who dressed as Forrest Gump in homage to the movie that was filmed partly in town.

Dr. Bonovich and Temple Grandin
Temple Grandin, PhD, signs her book for Dr. Jen Bonovich. Dr. Grandin was the keynote speaker at the conference.

On offer were 17 hours of continuing education along with lunch-and-learns over two days on the University of South Carolina-Beaufort campus. Speakers included Dr. Wendy Bray, a veterinarian mom and life coach who conducted a wellness workshop; Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, who gave a session on dealing with bad reviews in veterinary medicine; and Dr. Donnell Hansen, who spoke about feline dentistry and oral masses.

“Multiple times during the conference, a baby cried, and no one had to hold their breath. One time the speaker worked it into their lecture. Or several moms jumped in to take care of the baby,” Dr. Buzby said. “The CE was just flying by because it was so well presented, and they put in anecdotes about their own practice or mothering experiences, and we could all relate.”

Dr. Buzby really wanted to have Temple Grandin, PhD, as a speaker. The animal behaviorist and professor at Colorado State University typically doesn’t work on weekends, so Dr. Buzby—who has a child who has autism, just like Dr. Grandin—wrote an impassioned plea explaining what the presence of Dr. Grandin would mean to the group.

“I felt like she was going to be encouraging because of her life, going from being a child who society wanted to lock away to being professor at a university and one of Time magazine’s most influential people,” Dr. Buzby said. Dr. Grandin accepted the invitation to speak and also gave a Q&A.

At one point in the conference, Dr. Buzby talked to those gathered about the significance of a particular Venn diagram to her. One circle represents motherhood and all that entails, and the other circle represents being a veterinarian and the associated experiences and challenges.

“So our Venn diagram is where veterinarian and mom overlap, and there’s common ground in the middle, and we understand each other’s heart with very few words,” Dr. Buzby said.

She had a local jeweler make necklaces with two overlapping rings that she gave to attendees that night. First, she had them make a pledge: “I will reach out.”

Drs. Faeh, Bradley, and Donlin representing AVMA
Drs. Sandra Faeh, AVMA vice president (third from right); Karen Bradley, AVMA Board of Directors chair (second from right), and Janet Donlin, AVMA CEO and executive vice president (far right), were representing the Association.​​
Venn diagram necklace
The conference’s sponsors prepare to hand out the Venn diagram necklaces.

“If you’re in a good place, you’re going to be reaching back and out to our colleagues who are struggling, who maybe need mentorship or a meal because a child has just been diagnosed (with a condition). If you are in a place you are struggling, you are reaching forward” for help from a colleague, Dr. Buzby said.

And that philosophy applies to all veterinarians, she said, not just those who are moms. She encourages any colleagues in need of support or encouragement to reach out to her or other members of the DVMoms Facebook group.

Dr. Buzby said, “Often there is this discrepancy between the secrets of our heart and the pain that we’re wading through and what we portray in life and on social media.” She asked attendees—and veterinarians in general—not to have that sort of mismatch.

“If you are in a place where you need help, remember the Venn diagram and intimacy we share,” she said. “And please reach out.”

Planning is already underway for next year’s conference.