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Seven-year-old receives honorary veterinary degree


Mary Stegmueller was diagnosed a rare form of cancer at age 4 and was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a veterinarian

Mary Stegmueller and her parents after she received her honorary degree from Colorado State University (Image courtesy of Mariah Hood)

Mary Stegmueller and her parents after she received her honorary degree from Colorado State University (Image courtesy of Mariah Hood)

Mary Stegmueller was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare form of cancer that targets the brain stem, when she was 4 years old and was given a prognosis of 9 months. However, she is beating that now 3 years.1 Kristin Stegmueller, Mary’s mother, had brought their family cat, Freyja, to the National Veterinary Associates (NVA) Community Pet Hospital (CPH) in Thornton, Colorado, and she shared with the staff her daughter's love for animals and her dream to be a veterinarian when she grows up but fears she would not be able to achieve that dream. To help Mary, Marie Tavenner, hospital director at CPH, stepped up to create a day for Stegmueller that no one involved will ever forget.

On November 14, 2023, CPH hosted a surprise graduation ceremony for Stegmueller. Dressed in a purple cap and gown, Stegmueller claimed her honorary Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Colorado State University (CSU).2 Facilitated by Lawrence Hill, DVM, DABVP (canine and feline), an NVA general practice mentor and associate veterinary at the Animal Hospital of Worthington, Ohio, and Dan Smeak, DVM, DACVS, an emeritus professor at CSU.

“It was a day we will never forget,” expressed Kristin Stegmueller, in the organizational release.2 “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.”

Ready to go in her custom purple scrubs, a white coat with her name embroidered on it, and a purple stethoscope, thanks to Brandy McGreer, a CPH veterinarian and a survivor of breast cancer, Stegmueller was ready to learn and see patients. Along with her attire, Stegmueller also received an honorary AVMA membership certificate from Sandra Faeh, DVM, AVMA president-elect and chief veterinary officer for NVA.

Stegmueller examining X-rays with Teresa Borys, DVM, PCH medical director, with foster kitten Edith.

Stegmueller examining X-rays with Teresa Borys, DVM, PCH medical director, with foster kitten Edith.

With her new attire and AVMA membership, Stegmueller was ready to get to work at the clinic. Teresa Borys, DVM, PCH medical director, showed Stegmueller how to use a stethoscope on a dog and then she assisted with a feline patient who was in the clinic for an annual visit. Darcy Klinger, CPH lead veterinary technician, brought a litter of foster kittens to the hospital and taught Stegmueller how to interpret kitten x-rays.

“Even though Mary is fighting this horrible disease, she was so happy. To know we got to be a part of that, it’s something that no one can ever take away from us,” said Tavenner. “I’ve never felt closer to the team here than on that day. It was like nothing else mattered; it was just about this little girl and her family.”2

Stegmueller and her family received an invitation from CSU for a private tour of its veterinary teaching hospital. At the hospital, she learned more about veterinary medicine and was able to watch a dog receiving radiation treatment.2 After leaving the hospital, Stegmueller said her favorite part was meeting the animals who are undergoing the same treatments that she is familiar with.

The next day, Stegmueller begged to go to school after her radiation treatment so she could tell her classmates about her time at the hospital. At school, she gave a presentation, telling her classmates they could bring their sick pets to see her, and proudly handed out her business cards. Since receiving her honorary degree, Stegmueller has made more visits to CPH where she was able to meet Santa as he was taking photos with patients and staff as well as to sell Girl Scout cookies to the team at CPH.


  1. Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/conditions/diffuse-intrinsic-pontine-glioma
  2. Veterinary community grants wish for animal-loving girl with cancer. News release. American Veterinary Medical Association. February 21, 2024. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.avma.org/news/veterinary-community-grants-wish-animal-loving-girl-cancer
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