I knew from a young age that I wanted two things in life: to be a veterinarian and a mother.
I grew up riding horses and was fortunate to be raised on a small horse farm. I was always present to help the veterinarians with our horses and dogs during their visits. I shared my love of animals with everyone I met and I don’t think any person who knew me was surprised when I started to apply to veterinary school. For undergrad, I went to a small state college and lived at home to save money. I received a full scholarship for my freshman year and worked at three different veterinary clinics throughout. Through this, I managed to not take out any loans.
I decided to apply soon after my third year to all of the schools I met the requirements for as an early entry applicant. I got an interview at Tufts University (TU) and Michigan State University (MSU). After months, letter after letter arrived. I would anxiously open them thinking this was going to be “the one,” but they all read the same: declined. Finally, I was fortunate to get waitlisted and then officially accepted a few weeks later at MSU.
My first year at MSU was the most difficult year of schooling I had ever experienced. And moving across the country to Michigan and studying non-stop was isolating. I had a difficult time staying as excited as I had been all the years leading up to that point. I even contemplated moving back east a couple times during the first semester.
Fortunately, second year, for me, was much more manageable. Our pre-clinical education was organized into learning “normals” year one and “abnormals” year two. Finally, being able to apply all of the anatomy, physiology, and cytology to disease scenarios brought me back to my full-fledged desire to be there.
MSU is one of the schools that started clinics during the second half of third year, giving students a full 18 months of clinics. This was a huge plus for me because I learn by seeing and doing. For all of the reading, note taking, charting, and cramming I did, nothing compared to being able to actually have a real clinical scenario and start to apply knowledge to a case. I finally found my stride and excelled at clinics. I soaked up every case scenario and even came in when I was off clinics and after hours for on-call surgeries, procedures, and ultrasounds. I truly found my passion during clinics. In fact, my first rotation in week one of clinics as a third-year student was Emergency and Critical Care (ECC). I absolutely loved everything about the rotation—except one part.
My own dog, Boston, got hit by a car in the morning prior to leaving for my third day of my ECC rotation. Hysterical, I rushed him in and he had a tension pneumothorax and severe pulmonary contusions. Having my own pet, who is my support and the best dog I have ever had to this day, being one of my patients was extremely tough. I cried nearly nonstop while sitting with him while he was on the Pleurovac. Thankfully, he recovered fully and lived another 10 years. From my performance, or tearful drama, during my ECC rotation, I actually thought that my amazing mentors would think I was not cut out to become a Criticalist. What they didn’t know at the time was that I was absorbing absolutely everything about their clinical acumen, bed-side manner, approach to client care, and calming force during all kinds of chaotic situations. I went through the remainder of my clinical rotations channeling all I learned during that first rotation and went back for another rotation in ECC. Fortunately no four-legged family members ran in front of cars during this time, so I was able to immerse myself in all things ECC. It sealed the deal for me and I was certain I wanted to become a Criticalist. I do love Internal Medicine and Surgery too so it was difficult to give both of those up to decide in my heart of hearts to specialize in ECC. I always say that ECC is a marriage between medicine and surgery with a lot of really sick cases.
While applying for internships, I wanted to go to programs that would prepare me for a residency in ECC and I happily moved to Philadelphia to go to University of Pennsylvania for my internship. The jump in caseload was huge compared to MSU, but I learned from the best and had a wonderful experience. I was ready to move back to Massachusetts though after five years away, to be close to family and friends. I applied only to TU for my residency and wondered in the back of my mind, if they would remember they had declined my application for vet school years before.
During my residency interview, I was asked by one of the foremost veterinary specialists in the world where did I see myself in five years. Honesty is just a part of who I am so I answered truthfully, “In five years I see myself as a mother and a veterinary specialist with a job in clinical teaching at a university.”
I still laugh quietly when I picture the look on the interviewer’s face. It was a mixture of shock, appall, and disgust. Trying to always appear professional, I answered the next question, “What book are you reading now?” with the first answer that popped into my mind. I could have said Guyton or Ettinger, but I provided the title of my latest romance novel. Now you’re probably wondering how I even got to where I am today!
Thankfully the odds were in my favor. My residency training was amazing; I had fantastic mentors, a hopping caseload, and a great residency class. However, I felt my maternal clock was ticking and I was always thinking about when the “right time” was. What has always been difficult, in my experience, is to find veterinary faculty mentors who have chosen to balance their careers with motherhood. I can count on one hand the number of my mentors in my career who were mothers and accomplished specialists. So it probably comes as no surprise that when I chose to start my family during my residency, it brought upheaval to the department and entire residency program.
Not only was it difficult for my resident mates to believe an increasingly “more pregnant” team member was going to continue to work for as many hours as they were, but the concept of taking maternity leave nearly ended my career. I initially took 12 weeks of maternity leave, but as many new moms do, I struggled with the emotional impact of leaving to go back to working 50 to 70 hours per week. Additionally, I was solely breastfeeding and seeing emergencies for 10 to 12 hours a day does not lend itself to taking enough pumping breaks to feed a newborn. Because of this, I decided to ask about the possibility of making a different schedule that would allow me more time to be a mom, at home, but still continue my residency training schedule.
Eventually, I took an extended maternity leave from my residency working hours while still attending and participating in weekly didactic rounds, grand rounds and other residency requirements. I worked part-time at the university-associated referral hospital as an emergency doctor during that year. The time I took to be present with my first born is something I have never regretted and my year at the referral hospital gave me a different perspective on my future career direction. The return to my full-time residency program was not without bumps in the road. I re-entered with the residency class below mine, I was no longer “one of the team” with my original resident class, and I had to work extra hard to prove I was committed to completing the residency program and passing the examination. In spite of these perceptions and realities, my program was phenomenal and it is because of these tribulations that I am who I am today.
My maternal clock did not stop before the end of my residency. I was nine months pregnant when I finished my residency and got my final paperwork signed by my mentor. I remember waddling up their house after a snowstorm wearing a red maternity sweater hoping to see “that look” on their face for the last time. I studied for boards with a five-week-old and fortunately became board certified. It was a year later than my original resident-mates became boarded but I had my two amazing children, the loves of my life, to show for it.
Dedication, determination, planning and a little (maybe a lot) of stubbornness allowed me to achieve the goals I had dreamed as a young girl, so many years ago. I have since, in the past 10 years, been contacted by countless women in veterinary school, internship, or residency that find themselves in the same situation, but don’t know what it means for their training, how to talk to their mentors about their pregnancy, or how to balance a newborn and veterinary medicine.
Advice to women interested in becoming mothers during training or worried about being able to excel at both veterinary medicine and motherhood: Being a mom is not an easy job. Your love for your child or children will always be enough and even if there are days where you don’t see them or nights that you don’t get to tuck them in, they will always look up to you and love you. Being present during mom-time is more important than the amount of time you are able to be home. It is okay to set boundaries between your work life and your home life. We are all type A personalities and it is often easy to bury yourself in your work with unwavering dedication. It is important to remember though that your career will always be there even if you step away for a little while, or a long while, to focus on your family. Your babies are only babies once and in the blink of an eye, they will be tweens. Just ask me!
Being a mother and an accomplished veterinarian never has to be mutually exclusive. It just takes determination, creativity, and a supportive group of mentors to achieve veterinary success. The motherhood part comes naturally.