By: Valerie Goddard, staff assistant, Governmental Relations Division
Having grown up on a cattle ranch in a small, southern Colorado town, Dr. Kayla Henderson has been preparing to be a veterinarian from a very young age. But what she didn’t know was that, through the financial assistance of a federal program, she would later be afforded the opportunity to provide a much needed public service to her very own hometown.
“I was helping my parents pull lambs, calves and goats when I was 8 years old,” Henderson said. “I was basically immersed in the veterinary world early on and felt like it was a passion I could explore. I did and I never looked back.”
Henderson enrolled in Colorado State University and discovered that the San Luis Valley where she grew up is designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as one of the country’s nearly 180 veterinary shortage areas because it lacks sufficient large or mixed animal veterinarians. Henderson cited a couple of possible reasons why.
“The climate in the winter is miserable. If you take into consideration the wind chill, this is the coldest place in Colorado in the winter. That drives a lot of people away,” Henderson said. “When new veterinarians are hired, they like the people–we have very down-to-earth and hard-working people here–but I think the winters have driven a few young veterinarians away.”
Apart from the cold weather, it’s a poor agricultural area, Henderson said, which makes it difficult for veterinarians to make a living. “There are six counties in the valley, and two of them are the poorest in the state. This means we can’t charge Denver fees for veterinary services. As a consequence, making a living is more difficult than in wealthier areas.”
Of the nine veterinarians who currently practice in Henderson’s area, six are approaching retirement. And two of the six surrounding counties lack a veterinarian altogether.
Luckily for Henderson, she learned about the USDA’s Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) as a student and credits it as a deciding factor in determining the type of medicine she would practice. The VMLRP is a competitive grant program that repays up to $75,000 over three years toward qualified educational loans for eligible veterinarians who sign a contract with the USDA to practice in one of the agency’s designated veterinary shortage areas.
Henderson applied and was selected for a VMLRP award by the USDA in 2013. Although she loved the Colorado area and probably would have returned there to practice despite its challenges, receiving the VMLRP award was the selling point she needed to convince her husband, she said.
Henderson now spends her days providing a vast range of veterinary services for her community– from performing small animal procedures in the clinic to caring for large animals on farms and ranches to responding to medical emergencies throughout the day and night. Her passion for doing all that she can to help her patients, clients and community drives her goals for the future.
Being involved with the VMLRP has pushed Henderson to determine how to make veterinary care more accessible to her patients in the more remote counties, while providing her with the financial incentive to make it possible. Working with her boss, her future plans include: purchasing a mobile clinic as an extension of their current practice, holding additional vaccination clinics, organizing periodic large animal clinics to reach those in more severe shortage areas, and obtaining her state license in New Mexico so that she is able to field calls that the practice receives from beyond the border of her shortage area.
Another positive impact of receiving a VMLRP award is Henderson’s bolstered commitment to outreach and mentorship. She has realized just how important it is to spread the word to other veterinarians about the opportunities available and the needs to be fulfilled.
“I’m just trying to explain how amazing and awesome it is to live this lifestyle and trying to get veterinary students interested.”
Henderson encourages veterinary students and veterinarians to keep their options flexible when it comes to deciding where they will practice. Considering areas where there is a greater need for livestock and public health veterinarians can offer them a great experience and the reward of helping many people and animals.
“If they are flexible and willing to work their tails off for a little bit, then it’s going to pay off in the end. And they’ll love doing it. I think it will surprise them how much they actually love being a veterinarian in a community with so great a need and an abundance of appreciation.”
To learn more about the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, visit AVMA’s website here.