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An Interview with... Dr. Mary Beth Leininger
Take an active role in professional organizations, says the first female presidentof the AVMA. "What we do today will determine whether our future colleagues are held in high esteem."
Mary Beth Leininger, DVM, is the director of Professional Affairs at Hill's Pet Nutrition. She was president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) from 1996 to 1997 and was a companion-animal practitioner inMichigan for almost 30 years.
What is the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?
The broadened understanding of our profession's impact on human health. We have always recognized the importance of production-animal practitioners to a healthy food supply and the influence that veterinarians working in public health and epidemiology have on human health. But now, we also recognize that companion-animal practitioners have huge opportunities to help people be healthier. The concept of one medicine as a continuum that cuts across all species is alive and well!
Who was your most memorable patient?
A gentle English setter named Angel. Her family went through several devastating health challenges over a short time, culminating with Angel's diagnosis of terminal cancer. The family dealt with everything with grace and serenity. And when the time arrived to give Angel a gentle death, I cried with the family as Angel licked my hand and I slipped the needle into her vein. Angel gave me a gift beyond description: knowing why we love these creatures.
What was the best professional advice you ever received?
Dr. Arnold Hentschl, a food-animal practitioner from a small town in Michigan, told me, "You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give." Dr. Hentschl has served his patients, his clients, his community, and our profession in incredible ways, and he has done it quietly and without fanfare. In Michigan, if you mention Arnie nobody thinks of the famous golfer.
Who inspired you most in your career?
The two most important men in my life: my father and my husband, Dr. Steven Leininger. Dad never questioned my desire to become a veterinarian and never doubted that I would become one. My patient and steady spouse showed me the importance of moving through patients' diagnostic plans in a consistent manner with no guessing or missing any steps.
What would you advise a new graduate?
I would make two suggestions: One, keep your options open and investigate a lot of professional opportunities. Our education is so broad it prepares us for an incredible number of satisfying and fulfilling careers. I have met hundreds of veterinarians who are now doing things they never dreamed of—in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, with the Department of Homeland Security, at Harvard Medical School—and loving it. Two, get involved with professional organizations. We veterinarians are respected and admired because of the actions of colleagues who served previous generations. And what we do today will determine whether our future colleagues are held in high esteem.
What would you have liked to do if you hadn't become a veterinarian?
It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be a veterinarian. I had no fallback plan from age 7 on. Isn't it amazing that so many of us let a child make our life decisions?
Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Gretchen, my long-dead 19-year-old Persian, would come down from heaven and haunt me if I ever admitted to liking dogs, even though her best pal was our Irish setter.
What book are you reading now?
I am reading The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears by Nick Jans. It's the story of a man who spent most of his adult life interacting with Alaskan grizzlies and was ultimately killed by one.
What part of your work do you enjoy most?
Interacting with veterinarians from all over the world. My work takes me to most of the national conferences, and I've been called a veterinary junkie because I have so much fun hanging out with colleagues!
What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?
Our profession is on the verge of fragmentation. Species specialties are starting to take the place of state and national umbrella organizations, and busy practitioners often don't make the time to be active in professional associations. This brings the risk of our becoming isolated and not seeing the broader issues that face our profession—issues that can only be resolved by working together.
Which animal health needs are currently unmet?
First, the tragedy of the millions of healthy animals that are euthanized every year in our nation. Second, the tendency of companion-animal practitioners to focus on disease or illness (fixing something) and to overlook the broader need for wellness care and prevention. For example, providing proper nutrition has greater potential to improve pet health than almost anything else we do in our practices, yet we easily overlook it.
What is your sci-fi prediction for veterinary medicine?
Gene therapy will prevent and eliminate diseases. Can you imagine manipulating the genetic makeup of large-breed dogs to prevent hip dysplasia? Or identifying and eliminating the gene in boxers that makes them prone to cancers? And what is most amazing is this has actually already started: an ingredient in Prescription Diet Canine j/d (Hill's Pet Nutrition) actually turns off the gene that makes the enzyme that degrades canine cartilage. That's a wow!