Illinois Alum Combines Military Career and Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Erin Stein (DVM ’15, MPH ’16) acknowledges that veterinary medicine pushes the boundaries of one’s abilities. After all, there are extraordinary demands and limited supplies.
Her own career path, however, illustrates that an openness to other points of view and creative solutions can be the key to accomplishing one’s mission. She encourages future veterinarians to stay confident in their abilities and show a willingness to learn from others.
Dr. Stein was raised in a military family and aspired to serve her country while practicing veterinary medicine. One of her mentors who was in the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which funds medical education in exchange for military service, encouraged Stein to consider the Army Veterinary Corps. She seized this opportunity to make her contribution.
“Our role is to support both the four-footed soldier [military working dogs, horses], as well as the two-footed soldier,” says Dr. Stein, regarding the Army Veterinary Corps. Army Veterinarians have the mission of providing health and welfare for government-owned animals and training the medics that go out with the soldiers and marines on the front lines.
The Army is the only branch of service that has practicing clinical veterinarians, and they are responsible for animals throughout the Department of Defense and other Federal Agencies. They are also responsible for ensuring a safe food source for the service members and their families through sanitary inspections on the bases as well as food audits.
Operation Continuing Promise
Now a captain in the Army, Dr. Stein served as officer in charge of a veterinary detachment in Operation Continuing Promise, a program that provides medical, dental, and veterinary aid in Latin America. From January to April 2017, Operation Continuing Promise focused its humanitarian mission in Guatemala, Colombia, and Honduras.
Dr. Stein’s detachment worked to improve the health and welfare of animals and humans by addressing the issue of animal overpopulation. Her team empowered local veterinarians to carry on the practices of sterilization and vaccination after the Army Corps has ended its mission.
“One thing that is important to recognize is that we were not coming in to save the countries,” Dr. Stein says. “The partnership with the local veterinarians who already talked about continuing our efforts is what will change those nations.”
Dr. Stein says that her team was exceptionally fortunate that the interpreters who worked with them were veterinary students. And when the interpreters saw the Army’s work and effort, they initiated contacts with local farmers to establish education on animal production techniques and to vaccinate or deworm their animals. Spay/neuter clinics will also continue in several locations her unit served.
The partnerships have benefited Dr. Stein as well. In Latin America, she gained insights from local veterinarians about treating ailments that she had only heard about in lectures at veterinary school. Her experiences have included treating zoonotic diseases such as Brucellosis, tuberculosis, Leptospirosis, rabies, and parasitism, which affect both human and animal lives in these countries.
She was also involved in potential outbreak investigations as well as food safety training, all very much within the “one health” focus of her veterinary and public health education.
Remembering the Lessons From Illinois
“Illinois’s integrated curriculum provided the educational challenges I needed to ensure that I was successful post-graduation,” says Dr. Stein.
“Additionally, the extracurricular programs that I was involved with greatly assisted my career. I spent four years in the Wildlife Medical Clinic at Illinois, including serving as a team leader, outreach representative, and raptor caretaker.”
She was taught how to think outside of the box by working at the Wildlife Medical Clinic— especially when patients weren’t always appreciative of her service. Dr. Stein gained a valuable sense of emergency and surgical experience when she worked as a Large Animal Clinic night intern. During her fourth year, she also tracked large animal to tailor her experience toward her career.
Dr. Stein encourages veterinary students to learn about and accept cultural differences when working overseas. She advises newcomers to a country not to be quick to judge. Every culture shares an appreciation for animals, but may express their appreciation in different ways.
Openness to different ways of achieving a goal has helped her achieve success.
“One of the best pieces of advice I have heard came from a previous garrison commander,” Dr. Stein says. “He told me, ‘Don’t be afraid to say yes.’ Not every request can be answered with an affirmative, but most requests should not be answered with a definitive ‘no.’ Instead, there may be a unique or creative way to achieve the same purpose.”
When there was a shortage in technicians who could perform surgery for a dog with suspicious masses, Dr. Stein remembered the advice.
She worked with a food inspector who was interested in attending veterinary school, and they would do regular cross-training, where veterinary technicians train food inspectors on their jobs and vice versa. Through creative thinking, Dr. Stein scheduled the dog’s surgery at a time when one of these cross-trained food inspectors was able to serve as the second technician.
They were able to turn a “no” into a surgery that helped the dog and enhanced the experience of the food inspector. The mission could not have been accomplished without Dr. Stein’s flexibility in handling emergencies and finding solutions to work within limited resources.
To the future veterinarians, she says: “Continue to pay it forward. No one gets into veterinary school or survives it alone. Someone along the way mentored and inspired each of us, and it is vitally important to continue to mentor and inspire those who share the veterinary dream.”
—Da Yeon, Eom