Keynote speakers discover leadership lessons in small moments

Veterinarians share their struggles, triumphs at AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference

By Coco Lederhouse
Published: 21 February 2023


“Sharing our story is what makes us strong,” emphasized Dr. Betsy Charles during the keynote session on Jan. 6 at the 2023 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago. Titled “As We Lead, So We Leave,” the session showcased her and five other veterinary professionals who told stories of impactful moments that influenced their personal philosophies.

Dr. Charles said that through all the challenges faced by veterinary professionals, when they share their stories, they can knit generations together, resulting in a tapestry that is vibrant and rich.

Dr. Betsy Charles

Dr. Charles
Dr. Betsy Charles kicks off the keynote address on Jan. 6 at the 2023 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference in Chicago. She explains the power of sharing our own stories and the longstanding legacy storytelling creates in the veterinary profession. (Photos by R. Scott Nolen)

Dr. Charles, vice president of medical excellence with Mission Veterinary Partners, explained that the purpose of the storyteller is to give the listener questions to think about. She encouraged attendees to open the door to possibility and to understanding that the tapestry of their lives and of the profession involves tucking in loose ends and connecting to threads they don’t see yet.

She shared her story about losing her husband to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—and how they worked through the diagnosis together. She said, “The awful is a little less awful when you share your story with someone who doesn’t fix, or problem solve, or minimize, or judge.”

Dr. Charles said, “If we start to pay attention to each other’s stories and appreciate how many different-colored threads exist, we begin to understand and see the possibility of knitting generations together.”

Dr. Jon Geller

Dr. Geller
Dr. Jon Geller, founder of the Street Dog Coalition, shares the story of Viktor, a refugee, and his dog Alpha, who seek help from a veterinary clinic at border of Romania and Ukraine. Dr. Geller assists Viktor during the journey to reunite with his family in France.

Dr. Jon Geller remembered a haunting experience with a homeless man and his pit bull–type dog, when the man seemed to be silently asking for help. The situation inspired Dr. Geller to start The Street Dog Coalition, a nonprofit that provides free medical care and related services to pets and owners experiencing homelessness.

In 2022, Dr. Geller worked with several Romanian veterinarians to set up a temporary veterinary clinic at the border of Romania and Ukraine. A group of international volunteers worked to examine, vaccinate, microchip, and deworm the pets of Ukrainian refugees as well as issue a European pet passport to continue their travels westward.

Dr. Geller recalled the dogs and cats swaddled in coats and blankets that mirrored the large puffy coats their owners were wearing to fight off the cold wind as they made their way to the warming tent. They were part of a migration of over 6 million Ukraine refugees who desperately needed assistance.

It was there that he met Viktor, a refugee, and his dog, Alpha, who were trying to make it to France to reunite with their family. Viktor worked on a Russian fishing boat, his Russian credit cards no longer worked, and he was almost out of gas. He asked, “Can you do something?”

Dr. Geller was able to secure additional funding so Viktor could afford to fill up his car and continue his journey to France. Three days later, Viktor called Dr. Geller in a panic. He was nearly out of gas again and had more ground to cover. Dr. Geller directed him to a Western Union office in Germany where he was able to get resupplied with funds.

“We all cheered when news of his arrival in France is heard and he is reunited with his wife and family,” Dr. Geller said.

Thinking back to the homeless man and his dog from years earlier, Dr. Geller wondered how he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to help Viktor and other Ukrainian refugees and their pets. He vowed to always assist when asked, “Can you do something?”

Dr. Brandy Duhon

Dr. Duhon
Dr. Brandy Duhon didn’t let her disability stand in the way of her dream career as a veterinarian. During the keynote, she shares a poignant story about her teenage nephew AJ and the definition of “impossible.”

As a result of bacterial meningitis, Dr. Brandy Duhon lost both of her hands and part of a foot. She remembered being teased in high school, doubted in college, and told her dreams were impossible in veterinary school.

When her nephew, AJ, proudly told his 10th grade class that his aunt is a surgeon despite not having hands, his teacher said, “That’s impossible!”

But Dr. Duhon knew just how to handle the situation and agreed to a Zoom call with AJ’s class. It went so well that the teacher asked whether Dr. Duhon would do a talk annually to as a way to expose students to someone with a disability and show them what was possible.

“Just because someone doesn’t do things the way you do doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” Dr. Duhon said.

She said that she’s needed to prove herself every single day, overcoming her disability in a highly competitive environment. “How I proved myself is what made me special. It’s possible,” she said.

Zach Tooley

Zach Tooley
Zach Tooley, immediate past Student AVMA president, recalls a tough time in his adolescence when he learned just how impactful the decisions of a leader can be for those who rely on them. As a fourth-year veterinary student, Zach looks forward to giving back to the communities that have supported him.

At age 14, Zach Tooley learned just how many tough decisions leaders face and how much of an influence those decisions can have. His family started an equine boarding and training business that eventually was forced to close to make ends meet. Their home went into foreclosure, and his family dynamic was forever changed.

Tooley, now a veterinary student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and immediate past president of the Student AVMA, is focused on being the best person he can be and making the best decisions he can. He recommended keeping perspective.

“Make your choices as if it would impact you as greatly as those under your direction,” Tooley said.

Dr. Erin Black

Dr. Black
Dr. Erin Black tells a story about a challenging situation in veterinary school when she sought to find belonging on a campus of students who didn’t look like her. She explains the pivotal influence of a supportive ally on faculty.

Dr. Erin Black told a story about a challenging situation at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences when she sought to find belonging in a college of students who mostly didn’t look like her. When a close friend left the program, Dr. Black felt abandoned, especially since that friend was the only other Black student in the class.

Dr. Black explained the pivotal influence of a supportive ally on the faculty. Dr. Black visited her assistant dean and voiced the desire to see students who looked like her and saw the world from a similar perspective. She felt encouraged after the conversation.

Dr. Black noted that Black veterinarians make up about 2% of the profession. “How can we change that? How can we be more representative?” she asked.

The answer could be as simple as a situation she later found herself in as a practicing veterinarian: telling a little girl who wants to grow up to be a veterinarian that she can be whatever she wants to be, even if she doesn’t see herself represented that way in television programming.

“So often we feel we can’t make a difference, when in reality, it’s little things over time that make a huge impact,” Dr. Black said.

She challenged attendees to advocate for what is right, not what is easy. “How will you show up for our community? Together, how can we make a difference?”

Dr. Morgan McArthur

Dr. McArthur
Dr. Morgan McArthur enthusiastically explains how our relationships with the people we meet determine the trajectory of our lives. He describes a card trick to identify the three kinds of people we encounter: influencers, encouragers, and butt kickers.

“I can show you a card trick that lets you see your life flash before your eyes and helps predict your future,” said Dr. Morgan McArthur, president of M2 VetSpeak Consulting. “Want to learn it?”

After returning to his home state of Wisconsin after 10 years spent overseas, Dr. McArthur found himself in a dark place emotionally and careerwise.

One day, he received a call from an old acquaintance, Vance, and their 10-minute conversation spurred a memorable activity. Dr. McArthur recalled grabbing an index card and filling one side with the names of people in his life. That side of the index card is the past, and the other is the future.

“People determine the trajectory of our lives. There is a story attached to every name,” Dr. McArthur said. “That list was unique to me.”

He explained the three types of people he has come across in life: influencers, encouragers, and butt kickers. Influencers are heroes or role models whose example guides us from afar. “Real encouragers are rare and remembered,” he said, while butt kickers tell you the truth even when you’re not ready to hear it.

Dr. McArthur said, “Help craft your future by creating new friendships.”


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