Veterinary school isn’t easy — that’s a given.
Imagine suffering a spinal cord injury as you’re on the path to your dream. The injury forces you to use a wheelchair, making veterinary school exponentially more difficult.
That’s the situation Mary Beth Davis faced.
And she faced it down successfully. In May, she will graduate with her doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.
“It’s definitely been a struggle,” said Davis, who hails from Guthrie, Oklahoma. “I have to go the extra step to get things done. But at the same time, anything is possible. I have had a great support system here at school, and my classmates and family have all helped in the process of my earning a DVM degree.”
Davis, who suffered the injury in an automobile accident, said elements of her physical limitations include weakness in her right hand, limiting her dexterity and less-than-ideal core strength. “I am constantly having to lean on things to support myself to do anything with my hands, which has not only been a physical challenge but a mental one as well,” she said. “I have to not be so hard on myself, and understand that it is a limitation that I have to work with and adapt.”
The center welcomed Davis and worked to make all areas accessible to her, she said.
“A lot of work went into making sure there were pushbuttons on all the doors,” Davis said. “Different tables were installed for me so that I could get under them and closer to a patient. A specific surgery table gave me the accessibility and ease to perform the way that I needed to. It was definitely something I was worried about coming into vet school. It made my life around the hospital and over at McElroy Hall a lot easier.”
One of her faculty mentors, Dr. Margi Gilmour, a professor of ophthalmology and associate dean for academic affairs, remembered how the center got feedback from Davis for its accessibility.
“In anticipation of Mary Beth coming to the Veterinary Medical Hospital for third- and fourth-year classes and clinical rotations, I asked her to go through so many doors to be sure the push or pull effort was correct for her,” Gilmour said. “So many obstacles that we take for granted, and yet Mary Beth was only positive and accommodating for what sometimes would be less than ideal options. Mary Beth has taught us all so much. I am very grateful for her insights and guidance during the learning process.”
Gilmour wasn’t the only one who learned from Davis.
“When I first met Mary Beth, she was ‘the student in the wheelchair.’ I had never spent time with someone with Mary Beth’s physical limitations,” added Dr. Jerry Ritchey, a professor and head of the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology. “What I found was an ambassador and a teacher.
“I learned from her about her struggles and successes, the ingenuity required to accomplish simple daily tasks that I always took for granted. She was always open, honest and sincere. Her journey speaks for itself. She provided me confidence to approach and interact openly with any wheelchair-bound person. In the end, I guess I no longer see a ‘student in the wheelchair,’ I just see a young lady who is about to be called Doctor.”
Davis’ wheelchair often meant she sat up front in many situations.
“Mary Beth sat in the very front of the cramped third year classroom — the only area to give her enough room,” Gilmour said. “I’m sure she did not care for the location but as the course instructor, it was really nice having Mary Beth up front ‘with me,’ since she was always an interested and engaged student.”
That wasn’t the only time Davis ended up in front. She remembers a pathology class fondly.
“One that will always stand in my mind is Dr. Ritchey and Dr. (Anthony) Confer putting on their guitar sessions during class doing renditions of old songs in the pathology version,” Davis recalled. “I got a front-row seat, which was a blast! I have also really grown attached to ophthalmology. I enjoy learning about it and think it’s a fascinating subject. Ophtho definitely has a place in my heart.”
It’s such a favorite that Davis hopes to one day become a veterinary ophthalmologist. She plans to work in private practice for a few years and then pursue a career in ophthalmology.
“Things will happen the way they are supposed to. I want to take a break from the academic setting,” added Davis. “I’m ready to go out and be an adult and have an actual job for the first time in like eight years. And then, very seriously consider becoming an ophthalmologist.”
At her May 10 graduation ceremony, Dr. Rocky Bigbie, OSU veterinary medicine class of 1981, hooded Davis.
“Dr. Rocky Bigbie gave me a lot of hope,” said Davis. “I wasn’t sure that vet school was something that I could do. I knew it was something I wanted to do but I kept thinking ‘I don’t know of anybody else who uses a wheelchair. I’m going to have such a hard time.’ And Dr. Bigbie was just like if you want it, do it. I remember him talking with me and my mom and family and really giving me that extra push that I needed. I’ll forever be grateful because I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if we hadn’t had that talk. He’s been great and I consider it an honor for him to hood me.”
“I met Mary Beth shortly after her accident,” stated Bigbie. “It was easy for me to tell her parents, ‘She can do this.’ But at the time I thought, ‘I’d rather see her fail in vet school than to have never tried.’ Well, she didn’t fail. Mary Beth has a humble confidence that is very alluring, almost magnetic. I noticed how comfortable people were with her despite a very conspicuous barrier to cordial exchange—a wheelchair. She is a beautiful shining beacon of determination and self-reliance. Veterinary medicine is not an animal profession; it’s a people profession. She has that magnetic demeanor for the people and her intelligent tenacity for the animals or the science. I am so flattered to hood her that it’s difficult to explain. No doubt, this is one of my greatest honors.”
Whatever path Dr. Mary Beth Davis takes, it is obvious she is determined to succeed.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here at the end. I think of how long I have been in school. It’s kind of surreal. A lot of work goes into classes and then clinics is a wild ride but you are entering one of the best professions ever. Your class that you graduate with becomes your family but it doesn’t stop there. The entire veterinary profession is a family and everybody is looking after each other. That’s just incredible to me.”
And what advice would Davis offer others, including those physically challenged, who want to become a veterinarian?
“I’m living proof it’s possible,” she said. “Everybody has a struggle, whether it’s a physical disability or not. Don’t get it inside your own head that you can’t do it. I did that for a little bit and it could have cost me what is a fantastic career, so find somebody who can mentor you the way that you need it. I hope that other people who may have disabilities feel inspired or motivated (by this story) to become a veterinarian if they want to.
“You don’t see that many people who use wheelchairs be veterinarians, so hopefully I’m leading the way for people who are also interested in veterinary medicine. After all, anything is possible.”