A Lifetime of Learning: Marie Kerl

By Marie Kerl Mar 05,2020
Moments that seem insignificant at the time can have meaningful impact years later.
I’ve had an interesting path through our amazing profession, and have been asked to tell my story.  I have eternal gratitude for being surrounded and lifted up by so many wonderful people throughout my life, education, and career. In sharing my journey, I hope it helps you reflect on those people in your life who have helped you become the person you are today, as well as all of those whose life you have touched in countless ways. Even moments that seem insignificant at the time can have meaningful impact years later.

I am the youngest of four children with three older brothers, and my parents were committed to raising us to be good people. They lived their values of honesty, faith, and family, and in their children instilled a strong work ethic and value of lifelong learning. Most of my youth was spent in North Alabama; however, my father’s job transfer led us to San Jose, California during my last 2 years of high school. It was hard at first, but living through that helped me recognize good things can come with big change, and it ended up being an amazing experience! While many people know exactly the moment they decided to become a veterinarian, it just seemed that by the time I graduated from high school that was my destiny! 

In 1979, I returned to Alabama as an undergraduate at Auburn University with a plan to apply to vet school. I studied Food Science for my undergraduate program and a year later I realized I was a lesbian (which of course sounds so calm to say now but the journey is never easy!). Given the era, living closeted was really my only choice, and living a dual life became my norm. My faith helped me during these years. I lived under the assumption that I was created as I was for a reason by a perfect God, and humans do not have perfect knowledge or understanding. This belief helped me to maintain my bearings through some difficult years and also to forgive those who did not understand my experience. 

After my first unsuccessful application to vet school, I completed my undergraduate degree in Food Science and had a great year. My second application was successful. Veterinarians understand that special bond between a group of wonderful classmates that become your “second family” for four years, and the Auburn CVM Class of 1987 was of course the best class! School was difficult. My grades weren’t great and my class ranking was near the bottom. My fault of course – I was focused on a variety of things, some of which were not studying! I don’t regret that, but in retrospect I might have studied a little more. However, my academic performance made my first internship application non-competitive (another blessing in disguise).

I started my professional career with a small animal practice in Columbus, GA. I was amazed someone was paying me to have the best job in the world, but missed the continual focus on learning from school and the camaraderie of my classmates and faculty. As an all walk-in practice, I learned to see whatever showed up, appreciated diverse professional experiences, and learned to speak with clients and respond to a variety of situations – some positive, some negative. I also did relief in our local ER, for which I was completely unprepared! I knew I still had a lot to learn, but did not know how to go about getting that knowledge. I ultimately became frustrated with my lack of professional growth and considered applying to medical school. My poor mom – I called her and told her, and she called me the next day and said she would send me the money to apply. Instead of following that path, thankfully I made a last-minute decision to apply to internships again, including the Animal Medical Center in New York. I knew nothing about their program, but one of my favorite professors, Dr. Guy Pidgeon, had trained there, and if others could complete an internship, I was sure I could. AMC required an in-person interview, so off I went to New York. The match was unsuccessful, but Dr. Mike Garvey called and offered me an unpaid internship. While this may seem wrong now (and I do not support unpaid internships), this opportunity changed the entire trajectory of my career and I appreciated the chance with my academic record. I remain grateful to my brother for helping me to achieve this goal. This experience made me a strong supporter of internship training. I am also thankful for my time in small animal practice, since I believe that helped me to have a deeper understanding as a specialist of the challenges our GP colleagues face.

Both working at AMC and living in New York City were transformational for my career and life. Professionally, I was surrounded by veterinarians and technicians who were much smarter and more experienced than I was. They identified the gaps in my physical exam and case assessment skills, and were excited to talk about patients, review lab work, and make new discoveries. The technicians taught me how to work together to be the DVM and let them use their amazing skills. I learned by seeing LOTS of EVERYTHING! It was demanding, but I was so happy to be growing professionally. AMC also had a social worker – Susan Cohen – who was involved in both working with clients and teaching interns and residents about how to listen to and understand what clients needed. This was novel, and formative to understand the emotional impact of our profession. On a personal level, I made the decision to “come out” at work, which was empowering. As the years passed, I also came out to my family. After years of silence with my family about my relationships, I came to realize I was lying by omission and could no longer tolerate being dishonest. It was a difficult time for all of us, but the difficulty was worth the eventual outcome of finding peace.

My time in New York was occupied with learning how to be an internist, getting through board exams, seeing patients, teaching interns and residents, and studying emergency and critical care. I passed the ACVIM board exam in 1995. In 1996, I met my partner Elizabeth during her internship. Her career path led her to veterinary ophthalmology, and a move for both of us to Missouri in 1999 for her residency, and my faculty position at University of Missouri. I loved my years with AMC, and also recognize that a change after 10 years was an amazing growth experience. Our caseload was completely different than in New York, and my faculty colleagues who had trained in multiple programs helped me to expand my vision for diagnosis and case management. I also learned how to teach professional students, and continued with intern and resident training, seeing patients and clients, and growing as a veterinarian. I completed ACVECC boards in 2001. While my position was primarily clinical teaching, my colleagues graciously included me in research efforts. I transitioned through the Internal Medicine service to the Emergency and Critical Care service, and participated in a number of teaching, research, lecture, and University service activities. 

The events of 9-11-2001 were traumatic, and I wanted to help others. This led me to joining VMAT (now NVRT) in 2002. Thankfully, Elizabeth, as well as my work colleagues, were supportive. I formed a bond with a diverse group of veterinarians, technicians, and other really talented people you need with you during a disaster! There are so many amazing responders who all come together to help strangers who are suffering through no fault of their own. Each disaster response provides new and different learning experiences, and I have witnessed remarkable improvements in animal disaster response over the years. Interest in the intersection of people and animals in disasters led me to complete an MPH degree. 

After an 18-year academic career, I was seeking a new professional challenge. The VCA Regional Medical Director position had been on my radar screen for many years since it presented a unique challenge to grow my professional skills in a new direction – learning about supporting veterinary medicine through sound veterinary business principles to grow successful practices. I started as RMD in June, 2017, joining the great field support team for Central Group. Surprisingly, my biggest challenge with this position was to not see my co-workers on a daily basis! My biggest misconception about VCA was that practices would be much more similar than different, and that was completely wrong! It was exciting to learn the unique nature of each hospital team. Now it makes perfect sense that we acquire practices and want to support them to continue to be strong and successful in their own way. I was so lucky to work with Dr. Tony Guerino as my RMD partner-in-crime. As I watched our regional operators, I was amazed by their versatility and skill, always focusing on the best way to deliver and support quality care for our patients and clients efficiently while taking care of our hospital staff members. In 2019, I was able to add “regional operations director” for 5 specialty hospital to my position, and learn how difficult and complex that position really is, with daily attention needed to each hospital and lots of problem-solving. My boss, Lorrie Nimsgern, provided a model of true leadership and support for my learning and growth in business management. 

I look forward to serving our hospitals as the VCA Chief Medical Officer. Succeeding Dr. Todd Tams, who created and grew Medical Operations to what it is today, and supported the strong mission of providing the best and most current options for care for our patients and serving our clients well, will be a tough act to follow! None of my accomplishments have been on my own. We all learn and grow from each other throughout our lives, and my life has been richly blessed beyond my wildest expectations. I continue to try and understand the perspectives of others, and know that whatever we produce in society will be better and stronger if we work together. 
Dr. Marie Kerl
Dr, Marie Kerl
Marie Kerl
Chief Medical Officer, VCA Animal Hospitals
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We all learn and grow from each other throughout our lives, and my life has been richly blessed beyond my wildest expectations.
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