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Shattering the glass ceiling in veterinary medicine

This operations support manager engages in a Q&A with 3 figures in the veterinary field striving to make the industry more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

I have highlighted 3 individuals who are leading the charge to make veterinary medicine more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Recently, I had the honor to sit down with all 3 to ask what drives them and how others can follow in their footsteps.

Their answers were not surprising, but inspiring. All of them believe in the need to make veterinary medicine reflect the society in which we live and in their passion for a better veterinary space. Additionally, and not unexpectedly, all 3 believe in giving back to their communities. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Juan Sebastian Orjuela, affectionally called Juancho, is a fourth-year veterinary student at Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph in Canada. During his time in vet school, Juancho looked around and did not see many students who looked like him. Many of us would have been discouraged but Juancho decided to do something about it. With the goal of representation in mind, Juancho cofounded the Latinx Veterinary Medical Association (LVMA) to form a community of Latinx excellence in veterinary medicine. LVMA is open to veterinarians, veterinary professionals, students, pet parents, and allies. Additionally, Juancho is a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community.

Prior to vet school, Juancho attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He credits his hard work ethic to having been an immigrant child. When he was just 10 years old, he and his family emigrated to Minneapolis, Minnesota, from Bogotá, Colombia, to follow other family members.

In Bogotá, Juancho’s mother was a textile designer. His father was a lawyer and ran for governor of Bogotá. Following his unsuccessful run for government, the family decided to emigrate to the United States. In Minneapolis, Juancho’s father took a job as a line cook to build a base for his family and his mother was a school cleaner. Juancho’s life is the typical immigrant story of the desire to build a better life for the next generation.

Paul Miranda: What do people not know about you?

Orjuela: My parents are my biggest superheroes. If it was not for them, I would not be here. Also, in third grade, I was offered a job to walk puppies. I found my mentorship through squeezing out information from other people and always questioning things and being very curious. That gave me the confidence to pursue this career. I double majored in biology and in conservation and environmental sciences in college. I also started the first preveterinary club in college.

PM: What was coming out like for you in a machismo culture?

JO: Coming out was really tough. I had a lot of pressure. My dad was a politician and lots of our life [consisted of putting] out a vision of our family. That caused me lots of difficulties. I thought I would be disowned. I have always been someone who was unapologetically myself; I don’t care what others have to say. I grew up really fast. I came out to my sister first. I came out last to my dad. My mom was super embracing. My mom is my number 1 fan. Following family conflict, today my dad is my second number 1 fan.

PM: How did your LVMA journey begin?

JO: I have always had an entrepreneurial mindset. I have always been interested in law…and…I always wanted to be a servant to the people. My struggles, being told that I was not good enough to get into vet school, fueled me when I got into vet school to do something. I got into vet school and did not feel fulfilled. I felt very underrepresented. I saw zero veterinarians on social media who were Latino. I started networking with folks in the community [and] that’s when I met the other cofounder of LVMA. We joined forces. That’s when we created the mission, vision, and logo of LVMA. It was during my second year of vet school.

PM: How can we get other Latino/Latinx veterinarians and veterinary professionals to support the LVMA mission?

JO: We want to put [out] a call to action and need support from others to be part of our organization. We want the purpose to be Latinx support. We want to represent more and better. Veterinarians who are Latinx need the support. We need to serve this community which is currently underserved. We want to represent veterinary professionals and veterinary students. Most of what we are doing is to help veterinarians and veterinary students.

PM: What is next on the horizon for you?

JO: I am interested in emergency medicine. I’ve always been passionate about creating change in the profession. I am a believer in being the change you want to see in the world. I see a gap and I go to fill it. That’s why I costarted the LVMA, that’s what defines me. There is so much in this profession that needs to change. I want to do more things [and]…make things better. I want to create something to make life better…to elevate veterinary medicine and have an impact. I want to help more people.

Prior to finishing our interview, I attempted to recruit Juancho into a veterinary role with my organization. I have no doubt that wherever he lands, he will continue to positively affect veterinary medicine and help patients in need. Any hospital would be lucky to have him.

Mariliz Hernandez, DVM, is the proud owner of Bellerose Animal Hospital in Queens, New York, a successful multidoctor AAHA-accredited hospital that is focused on high medical standards. Hernandez was born in Puerto Rico and attended the University of Puerto Rico in Arecibo. In 2002, she received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Her interests include primary medicine, surgery, and dermatology, as well as communicating with her Spanish-speaking clients.

PM: What do most people not know about you?

Hernandez: I have a fraternal twin, a brother, and I have a younger sister. I lived in Puerto Rico for 23 years before I decided to join the veterinary program [in Tuskegee]…This was always a dream of mine. A lot of people thought I wasn’t going to make it, that it was just me desiring a beautiful career. I guess I proved them wrong at the end. It was always something I was very consistent [about]. You know that kids can change; I never did. I was very focused on that goal and it was very difficult at the time because usually in Puerto Rico, as you know, there’s no veterinary program.

PM: What led you to Tuskegee University?

MH: I went there because it was a minority school and the most important thing for me was finances but also the surgical [opportunities]. It had the surgical experience I was looking for because I’m very crafty and I love doing things with my hands. I ended up finding my husband there. [Hernandez is married to another veterinarian]. It was one of my best experiences in the middle of Alabama, in the middle of nowhere, and it was a great school.

PM: As a native Spanish speaker practicing in Queens, what can you tell me about your Hispanic, Latino, and Latinx clients?

MH: They’re my heart. They’re communicating in Spanish. When you practice and they know you know Spanish, their eyes open up, their shoulders go back, they relax, they understand.

PM: What is your management style toward hospital culture and staff retention?

MH: If they don’t fit in, they have to go. If you’re comfortable here, you stay. …I don’t even give them [doctors] a contract. If it’s meant to be for them to be here, they can be here. If they don’t want to be here, I don’t want any disgruntled employees; [they] can go. [This] has been the foundation since I bought the place with my husband.

PM: What would you tell your younger self?

MH: I would tell my younger self to work hard, be fair. And I would say be very frank and clear. Just don’t leave anything inside, express yourself in a very respectable way and try to…communicate to the client the truth straight in the eyes.

PM: What is the secret to your success?

MH: We work as a team. I will never take full credit for my success. It is the people behind me that are watching my back and are my right hand. They’re the ones who are keeping me in business, and, of course, the trust of the clients. And the reason they trust me is because they’ve seen the good outcome. They know we’ve come from a good side. [They] know we want the same goals that they have to get their pets better. And if I am wrong, I have no problem saying I’m wrong because it is the way that we grow. We’re growing every day, and medicine, as you know, doesn’t stop improving. So imagine, at an emotional level, we’re constantly evolving and in order for you to continue evolving, you have to be open and receptive. I was really tough before, I wouldn’t even care. Not anymore. I let go. It’s much easier that way.

PM: What are you doing with Tuskegee to help that next generation of veterinarians?

MH: I made a studio just for my [Tuskegee] interns to stay in. They don’t have money to stay anywhere. That’s free. You stay there and make it your own little bedroom and that’s it. And you stay there until you go. Because I was there and I had an amazing veterinarian student from Tuskegee that lent me her house with my cat at that time. You have to remember where you came from and how hard it was.

PM: After such a tough, nearly 2 years, what keeps you going?

MH: I think the resilience is part of it. It’s a survival skill that comes in our DNA also. No one is going to hand it to you when you get out of your country. You want to be the best of the best to represent your country. And I think that’s in your DNA. So yes, resilience comes in our DNA and there’s no time for failure. You try and if you fail, you pick yourself back up.

PM: What wisdom can you share with others?

MH: Stop doing things to impress others. Do it for yourself. You’re grown up now. You have to be happy. If that idea of being a veterinarian made you happy, go there. Find the right place, a place that can nurture your passion. I don’t want to impress anybody. I want to impress myself now. I did everything I had to do to make my parents proud. Hopefully my husband [and] my kids see what I’m doing, and I think I’m so comfortable with myself now that I hope I can inspire them too. But I’m doing this for me now.

As we continued our interview, I found myself talking with Hernandez as if she was an old friend. From the outside, it looks like she has it all. She has found a way to have a family and a successful practice and has kept her passion in place. Her humility is understated. Lastly, she reminded me again that she would not be here without the help of her doctors, staff, and hospital manager, Kyle.

Jose Arce, DVM, is the president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the first Latino to hold that position. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Arce attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge for his undergraduate degree and Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine, where he earned his doctorate in veterinary medicine. He further completed a clinical internship at Rowley Memorial Animal Hospital in small animal medicine, surgery, and emergency medicine. His medical interests include dermatology, ophthalmology, soft tissue surgery, and ultrasonography. He is also co-owner, with his wife, of Miramar Animal Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and is active in the Colegio Médico de Veterinarios de Puerto Rico.

From a young age, Arce had a passion for animals and science and knew he wanted to be a veterinarian. He was exposed to animals on his grandfather’s farm and kept fish in aquariums while growing up. Eventually, he combined his passion and love for both and pursued the “perfect career.”

PM: What led you to get involved in organized veterinary medicine?

Arce: Giving back to the profession. It’s part of why I got involved in organized veterinary medicine. My dad was involved with the American Medical Association and so it was a natural thing to me to get involved in the AVMA. I started at the Student AVMA (SAVMA).

PM: What is your secret to keeping employees engaged?

JA: I think it’s about developing that relationship with them, trusting you know them and not micromanaging everything.

PM: How do you recommend managing stress?

JA: I think you have to take one day at a time and remember why you became a veterinarian. We’re all in this together to make a difference, to make the life of our clients and our patients better. And I would just encourage everyone to fight through these stressors because, at the end, I think this is the best profession on earth. I really think that most of us are here because we really think that this is a great profession. Personally, sports helped me a lot. One of my stress relievers is playing soccer. It could be walking, running, whatever. Also, separating yourself from the practice after you come home. Good nutrition is important too. If you’re going to have an unhealthy life, it’s just going to make things worse.

PM: How does it feel to be breaking down barriers in veterinary medicine?

JA: You know it feels good. I feel very proud of it. At the same time, some responsibility comes with it. I’m trying to do the best job and lead by example throughout my presidency. I hope my being present in AVMA attracts other minorities. Whether [they are] Hispanic or Black or Asian American, it doesn’t matter. If I did it, anybody else can do it. When I started getting involved with SAVMA and later at the AVMA, I felt welcomed. Sometimes you hear about discrimination and I never felt that within veterinary medicine being Hispanic.

PM: How do we make veterinary medicine more accessible to underserved minority communities?

JA: We have to get to these areas. We’re not there yet. The underserved communities are something we have to reach out to by getting kids from these communities interested in becoming veterinarians. That’s going to change and we’re going to have veterinarians in the middle of some of these underserved communities for the rest of our lives. We just need to get that interest, tell them that you can be a veterinarian if you’re from South LA [Los Angeles] or from the Bronx.

PM: What can we do to get involved?

JA: I invite everybody from any background, …any type of practice, sexual orientation, or whatever it is, to get involved. Given the opportunity, get involved: whether it’s in your county VMA [veterinary medical association], your state VMA, the AVMA, AAHA [American Animal Hospital Association], or whatever association…, [you] can make a difference.

Arce knows he has a large task ahead of him and he is facing it head-on. His commitment to veterinary medicine and his need to serve is admirable and infectious. When we sat down, he was 45 days into his AVMA presidency. His 4 top priorities include the following:

  • Promoting AVMA diversity and inclusion in membership and leadership
  • Promoting One Health
  • Improving the student debt-to-income disparities in veterinary medicine
  • Promoting the health and well-being of veterinarians and veterinary students