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Mentoring dairy veterinarians for a brighter future

Amanda Meneses Published on 10 June 2013

Dr. Janet Helms knows what it’s like to be a young person with a big dream. Helms dreamed of being a veterinarian ever since she was a 7-year-old girl growing up in Long Island, New York.

Although there wasn’t any room in the suburbs to house horses, young Janet Helms longed for a horse of her own.

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Reading and re-reading books like All Creatures Great and Small was Helms’ way of proving to her parents she could care for one herself. This innate passion for animals grew stronger through the years.

However, just like all children, Helms changed her mind; her love of horses became a love for cattle. Today, it is the passion Helms holds for the young people who care for dairy cattle that makes her an incredible leader and mentor in the field.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in animal science from Cornell University, and doctor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, Helms decided her passion was working with cattle. Numerous internships throughout her summers in college on dairy farms and labs reassured Helms’ decision.

“The best place for me to focus just on cattle work was California,” Helms said.

With the help of a veterinary business partner, Helms began her own veterinary practice in southern California’s Chino Valley.

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Helms quickly realized the need for a mentor in the lives of young veterinarians in their first year of practice. “I had the opportunity to be the primary contact for vet students who wanted some dairy experience,” Helms said.

Students needed someone they could ask questions about being a veterinarian in the dairy industry. So Helms advertised on the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) website that she would provide an externship to give opportunities for veterinary students to shadow her work.

For years, many young veterinarians across the country, and even internationally, cycled through her practice, and still today, remain good friends.

“It always brings a smile to my face when I think about mentoring because I can picture all of the students who have come through. It’s great to know great vibrant young individuals that want to make a difference and are excited about vet practice,” Helms said.

Through the externship, students would build their confidence in veterinary skills. For example, veterinarian schools would not cover some of the basic safety precautions necessary for large animal vets, such as the safest place to stand when checking a cow.

Students shadowing Helms would also learn the basics in business accounting, building client relationships and how to become comfortable charging clients for vet services.

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“You don’t know those are questions you have as a student until you actually have to do it,” Helms said. “It’s nice to build relationships with young kids who are looking to build a career and are honestly looking for the experience, and I could provide that for them.”

Building relationships and providing experience is exactly what she did. By offering her home to students, giving them the Los Angeles experience and showing them the ropes to being a vet, Helms became a mentor and dear friend to all whom she came in contact with.

Dr. Katherine Swift, a Florida dairy veterinarian, credits the experience Helms provided as the foundation of her veterinary career. Swift was looking for a unique opportunity to work in a highly concentrated large dairy area and saw that Helms’ practice was advertising externship opportunities.

“Dr. Helms was a great educator and mentor. Not only did she help me develop the skills I learned in the classroom, but she also continued to make herself available to me after my externship was over. It was incredibly helpful to have someone I could call when I needed some help, guidance or advice,” Swift said.

Helms is a strong supporter of community involvement from young veterinarians. She has stayed active in organizations such as the American Association of Bovine Practitioners as well as the Academy of Dairy Vets Consultants.

Whenever Helms would leave a committee, she would always ensure that someone younger would fill her position. Helms believes it is “important to keep younger individuals involved in our profession at different levels, and exposed to committee work.”

Recently, Helms has trained at her alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Here she has trained vet students to read different individuals’ behavioral style to help better deliver information to clientele.

“As a vet, we have to sell our services as well as sell the value of the medicine, and not necessarily the value of the bottle, but the value of animal health,” Helms said.

It is at these types of workshops that students can build their confidence as a vet. Helm describes the value of these trainings to young adults as “phenomenal.”

Today, Helms serves as a business and development specialist for Zoetis. Her role allows her to continue guiding people as well as capitalize on opportunities in the business. She continues to mentor dairy veterinarians as they begin their practice by refining their communication skills.

Helms reflects back to a time when she herself was a young veterinarian beginning her own practice without anyone to ask questions.

“I think that’s why I gravitated to providing that role to so many young veterinarians,” Helms said.

Helms has made her practice much more than a day-to-day job. She has taken service to a new level and provides young veterinarians with an invaluable experience and mentor.

In time, the total number of veterinarians she has coached through her practice will be the legacy she leaves to future dairy veterinarians. PD

Meneses is a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the 2013 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

Amanda Meneses
Editorial Intern
Progressive Dairyman

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