Veterinarians tell a different story

Stories of triumph and resiliency shared at AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference

Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Charles opened the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference with an invitation to counter the current negative narrative about the veterinary profession with a different story, “one that highlights the strength of our profession, a story that focuses on empathy and generous listening.”

Dr. Charles is executive director of the Veterinary Leadership Experience. She and her team of veterinary storytellers recounted personal challenges and triumphs during the Jan. 6-9 meeting in Chicago to encourage members of a profession roiled by frustration and burnout. The following are excerpts from their talks, edited for length and clarity.

Veterinary professionals and storytellers
Veterinary professionals and storytellers share personal moments from their lives as a reminder about the joys of veterinary medicine.

Dr. Stephanie Jones, co-owner, Animal Hospital of Fort Lauderdale 

“Martin Luther King Day. I have a dream. But it’s cold outside. Martin Luther King Day. A day of recognition. But it’s cold outside. Martin Luther King Day. Dad says it’s not a day off but a day to do. But it’s cold outside. These are the thoughts running through my head as I told Alexa to snooze one more time. Eyes closed tight, a voice resonates through in my ear, ‘You have work to do.’”

Dr. Jones is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, a historically Black collegiate organization whose purpose is sisterhood and giving back to the community, and each year, AKA participates in an activity for MLK Day.

This one year, Dr. Jones changed her plans of participating in an MLK Day parade to help out at a community center with elementary and middle school–aged children. Seeing all the people and the bustle of activity, she wondered why she was even there. “What do I have to offer?”

Dr. Jones ended up at the art therapy table. The kids were to write in the corner of their papers the challenges they face and draw a picture of how to tackle those challenges. “I saw dejected, rejected, bullied, abandoned, judgment, grief. These are the words of our foster care kids.” She wondered, how do I reach these kids?

Then it came to her. She said, “I’m a veterinarian.” Faces looked up. “Does anyone know what a veterinarian does?” The floodgates opened as the kids started sharing stories about pets. “I found my open door. To the quiet girl sitting to my left, I said, ‘If I brought my dog, would you play with it?’ And that one phrase got a small smile. That was the moment I knew, that was the moment the spark was reignited for me. And I knew I had to come back. I had to keep this conversation going.

“A destiny awaits, a mission inspired, all because it’s cold outside.”

Dr. Vernard Hodges, co-owner, Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital

“As I looked down, staring at my report card, heartbeat pounding, one word just kept going over and over in my mind: failure, failure, failure. … I had failed the ninth grade. Tearfully, I looked down at that report card and thought all my life’s dreams and hopes were over. The dream of moving from that single-wide trailer park with the hole in the kitchen floor were gone. The dream of moving from that Georgia red clay road. My dream of moving from Fort Valley, Georgia, the poorest town in the state of Georgia, gone. … My dreams of becoming the first Black Jacques Cousteau, gone.”

Dr. Hodges recalled growing up in a town where certain areas were off-limits to Black people and the high school hosted separate proms for white and Black students. “This was the everyday reality of growing up in my hometown. This was not the reality I wanted for my life. I had to figure it out, but I knew I couldn’t figure it out alone.”

Dr. Hodges reached out to his high school guidance counselor, and she agreed to help. Together, they devised a plan for Dr. Hodges to attend summer school and work together after school so he could graduate with his class. “That’s when I realized how important mentorship is.”

“My next mentor was Dr. Melinda Davis. She was my undergraduate mentor, an amazing lady who believed in me way before I believed in myself. A sweet old white lady who reminded you of your grandma. Now she had some pop. She once came to my dorm room and dragged me to class. See, I’d missed class a couple of days and here comes this 5-foot, 2-inch little lady in this testosterone-filled dorm of teenagers, walks into my room, kicks the bed, and says, ‘Hey, turkey, get up. You’re going to reach your potential.’

“I’m very grateful she did that because mentors are the reason I’m here today.” (See Hodges Q&A)

Garnetta Santiago, licensed veterinary technician, Zoetis manager of academic and professional affairs

“I left a comfortable and predictable job in financial publishing in New York City, and I was going to finally pursue my dream of working with animals. It was going to be awesome. … We love animals so much, nothing else mattered. So you can image my shock when the realities of life on the floor didn’t match what I’d envisioned in my mind.”

Santiago recalled a particular rough day trying to place a catheter in a cat. “And at the same time, I’m trying to really ignore the head veterinary technician was standing nearby. I could see her rolling her eyes. I could hear her sucking her teeth and huffing and puffing over how long it was taking me to get that catheter in. My heart was racing because of her, because of that poor cat, because I was losing confidence in myself.”

That’s when she noticed the song playing on the radio, “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World. “In that moment, the lyrics were crystal clear: ‘Hey, don’t write yourself off yet. It’s only in your head you feel left out, looked down on. Just try your best. Try everything you can, and don’t you worry what they tell themselves when you’re away. It just takes some time, little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride. Everything, everything will be just fine. Everything, everything will be all right.

“At the time I didn’t appreciate how good it was that I wasn’t going to get good at ‘this’ because the ‘this’ that I had been beating myself up over was the approval and acceptance of someone whose opinion was utterly insignificant in my life.

“She will never know the impact that she had on my career and on my journey. See, back then, her words, they hurt. They were like compost: They stunk in the moment, but they became nourishment for my journey going forward.”

Dr. Jones
Storyteller Dr. Stephanie Jones recounts how a group of foster kids lit up when they learned she was a veterinarian.

Hidayah Martinez-Jaka, Student AVMA president

“My first pets were a flock of chickens my family adopted when I was 14 years old. I thought they were pretty darn cute, but I had no idea what my little birds would endure and how they would change the entire course of my life. My first exposure to the veterinary profession was trying to find a vet for my chickens. For years, I’d get the same responses—‘We don’t see those types of animals. We only see dogs and cats. Just cull it.’—from clinics anywhere within two hours of my hometown in rural Virginia.

Martinez-Jaka recalled the time when she took her pet chicken, Cuddles, to a clinic to be euthanized. Staff members took the chicken into a backroom, not allowing Martinez-Jaka to be with her pet in its final moments. “They did not hear me. They did not listen. They took her away from me and into the back, and I broke down.

“Finding no one to help my chickens, I taught myself to diagnose and treat soft tissue injuries, respiratory illness, reproductive disease and more all by the age of 16.”

Fast-forward several years to when Martinez-Jaka is a student at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Her pet Sammy, a white Ameraucana rooster, is lethargic, and one of his eyes is red. Martinez-Jaka sent a photo of the eye to an ophthalmologist at the veterinary college, who confirmed the eye was infected and that the rooster also had cataracts. She suggested cataract surgery in the future but in the meantime seeing a local veterinarian to deal with the inflammation.

“So I called around, fully expecting another futile search, but a veterinarian was willing to see him—the owner of a clinic where I had shadowed before veterinary school. It meant the world to me that a small animal practitioner who rarely saw chickens was willing to see my rooster and help me figure out what to do.

“I brought Sammy in. The staff had me come in through the quiet cat entrance and kept it low stress for Sammy. The veterinarian was so kind and empathetic. Turns out, Sammy’s eye just needed supportive care. I was and am so grateful for that experience. Such a contrast to the cold, dismissive veterinary experiences of the past.”

Dr. Morgan McArthur, president, M2 VetSpeak Consulting

“I was a large animal vet in eastern Idaho for the first 15 years of my veterinary career. The phone rang at 11 o’clock at night. It never rings like this during the day, does it? On the other end was Chuck Palmer. ‘Yeah, I’ve got a cow that’s cast her withers, and I need you come out.’ Cast her withers is cowboy code for a prolapsed uterus. … This won’t wait til tomorrow. I hung up with Mr. Palmer. I changed from my jammies to my coveralls.

“I had F words dancing in my head. Far away: This property was harder to find than a North Korean missile site. Frigid: It’s Idaho, it’s March, and I’ve got pellets of precipitation tapping on my bedroom window. Finances: Mr. Palmer was a slow-pay, no-pay sort of a client. And facilities: Truly this place was off the grid, and I knew it was going to be a rustic setup.”

Dr. McArthur drove off into the dark, eventually leaving the pavement for a gravel road that became a narrow trail leading to a wire gate where Palmer was waiting. Dr. McArthur opened the gate and drove into the muddy pasture, where the truck became mired in the mud. Mounting a tractor, Palmer freed the truck and towed it to the cow with a prolapsed uterus “hanging beneath her tail like a 40-pound sack of red potatoes.”

“Friends, this was the road to resentment,” Dr. McArthur said. Working in pouring rain and lit by truck headlights, he wrestled the cow down and administered an epidural. “At this point, my resentment was beginning to soften. A prolapsed uterus is not a self-correcting condition. This was hard work. This was important work. And as a veterinarian, this was my work.”

More than 20 minutes later, Dr. McArthur had pushed the uterus back inside the cow and cinched it in place. “It was then when my resentment surrendered to fulfillment, because I watched this newly repaired mother cow nuzzling her nursing calf. That, friends, is the privilege of this profession.”

A version of this article appears in the Feb. 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.