Veterinary community grants wish for animal-loving girl with cancer

Mary Stegmueller receives honorary veterinary degree, hands-on clinic training

Updated March 6, 2024

Like many new veterinary graduates, Mary Stegmueller has a deep love of animals. The difference is she’s 7 years old.

Stegmueller was diagnosed at 4 with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare form of cancer that targets the brain stem. She’s fought her original nine-month prognosis for more than three years.

National Veterinary Associates’ (NVA) Community Pet Hospital’s (CPH) in Thornton, Colorado, has cared for her family’s cats for more than a decade. Stegmueller’s mother, Kristin, happened to mention at an appointment for their cat, Freyja, that her daughter’s dream is to be a veterinarian and she was worried Mary wouldn’t be able to achieve that.

Group photo of a young girl, dog, and a veterinary team
Mary Stegmueller and some of the National Veterinary Associates (NVA) Community Pet Hospital veterinary team. Left to right: Drs. Robert Ladner, Georgina Gould, Brandy McGreer, and Teresa Borys. (Photos courtesy of Mariah Hood)

Marie Tavenner, hospital director at CPH recognized an opportunity to make a difference. So, she helped orchestrate a memorable day for this special child and her family.

“It will go down in my life as one of the most special things that I have been a part of,” Tavenner said.

Mary’s big day

The first order of business was a surprise “graduation” ceremony for Stegmueller on November 14, 2023, at CPH. She donned a purple cap and gown before claiming her honorary veterinary degree from Colorado State University (CSU). This was facilitated by Dr. Lawrence Hill, an NVA General Practice (GP) mentor and associate veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Worthington in Ohio, and Dr. Dan Smeak, an emeritus professor at CSU.

Next, she dressed in custom purple scrubs and had a white coat ceremony, complete with a lab coat embroidered with her name and a purple stethoscope, thanks to Dr. Brandy McGreer, a veterinarian at CPH and a breast cancer survivor.

A young girl in a graduation cap and gown receives a diploma
Stegmueller with her parents and her honorary veterinary degree. After hearing about Stegmueller’s dream, Dr. Lawrence Hill, an NVA GP mentor and associate veterinarian at the Animal Hospital of Worthington in Ohio and Dr. Dan Smeak, an emeritus professor at Colorado State University (CSU), wanted to see if they could get the 7-year-old an honorary veterinary degree. From there, Dr. Melinda Frye, associate dean for veterinary academic and student affairs at CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, approved and expedited the degree so it would be ready for Stegmueller's ceremony.

To make her status in the profession even more official, Stegmueller received an honorary AVMA membership certificate from AVMA president-elect, Dr. Sandra Faeh, who is also chief veterinary officer for NVA. The budding practitioner happily acquired a veterinarian Build-a-Bear stuffed animal from the mentors in NVA’s GP division.

Then it was time to get to work. Dr. Teresa Borys, CPH medical director, taught Stegmueller how to use her stethoscope on Sully, Dr. Robert Ladner’s dog. Dr. Ladner is participating in the NVA GP mentorship program.

A young girl next to a doctor in scrubs holding a certificate
Stegmueller poses with Dr. McGreer, a breast cancer survivor, and her AVMA membership certificate. Dr. Sandra Faeh, AVMA president-elect, contacted Dr. Janet Donlin, AVMA CEO, to extend an honorary AVMA membership and create an official certificate for the young animal enthusiast.

Stegmueller helped examine a feline patient for an annual wellness examination and greeted staff members who brought in their own pets for her to meet.

Darcy Klinger, lead veterinary technician, brought a litter of foster kittens to the hospital, much to Stegmueller's delight. Klinger showed her how to interpret the kittens’ X-rays.

“I love animals, especially cats, and want to take care of them like my doctors have always taken care of me,” Stegmueller said. Her favorite part of the day was getting kisses from one of the kittens.

“It was a day we will never forget,” Kristin Stegmueller said. “Not only getting to see our daughter laugh and enjoy checking the animals but getting to see her ‘graduate’ brought tears to our eyes. Something we know we may never get to see again.”

The day made an impact on everyone at CPH.

“Even though Mary is fighting this horrible disease, she was so happy,” Tavenner said. “To know we got to be a part of that, it’s something that no one can ever take away from us.”

Young girl in scrubs and a white coat pets a dog
Stegmueller says hello to Dr. Ladner’s dog, Sully. Sully’s tail is dyed purple in honor of Stegmueller’s favorite color.

The collaborative efforts of the CPH veterinary team, the NVA mentorship network, Colorado State, and the AVMA created magical moments for Stegmueller as well as for the people who helped make the day possible.

“I’ve never felt closer to the team here than on that day,” Tavenner said. “It was like nothing else mattered; it was just about this little girl and her family.”

Dr. Faeh was grateful to be involved in making Stegmueller's day memorable. “That’s part of what we do as veterinarians,” she said. “That’s our job, at every level, and the people are just as important as the pets.”


The next day, following her radiation treatment, Stegmueller begged to go to school and tell her classmates about her time at the hospital. She gave a presentation and told her classmates they could bring their sick pets to see her. Stegmueller proudly handed out her new business cards.

CSU later extended a private tour of its Veterinary Teaching Hospital for Stegmueller and her family. While there, she learned more about veterinary medicine and watched a dog undergoing radiation treatment. Mary said her favorite part of the tour was meeting animals undergoing the same treatments she was familiar with.

A doctor shows x-rays to a young girl holding a kitten
Stegmueller examining X-rays with Dr. Borys and Edith, the foster kitten.

Since becoming an honorary veterinarian, Stegmueller made additional visits to CPH, most recently to see Santa who took photos with clients and staff, and to sell Girl Scout cookies to her new colleagues.

As her condition has advanced, Stegmueller is less mobile and on hospice care. However, she maintains her signature positive attitude.

Her family has even started a hashtag to reflect her strength and optimism: #MaryStrong.

On being #MaryStrong, her mother said, “It means to never give up, to fight, believe in miracles, and work to be that miracle but to also be concerned about others fighting and help those you can even in your own battle.”

Editor’s note: Mary Stegmueller died on March 4, according to an announcement from her family.

Follow Mary’s journey on her Caring Bridge website.