Profiles in Leadership is a Better Care Weekly feature that provides insight into the bright minds of leaders in the global veterinary healthcare community.
Dr. Lilyan Mathai, a Clinician at the University of Nairobi’s department of clinical studies, is an active member of the Kenya Veterinary Association, the national executive committee of the Kenya Veterinary Association, The Kenya Women Veterinary Association, the Scientific Committee and the Kenya Small and Companion Animal Veterinary Association.
She is secretary of the hip dysplasia committee of the latter group. She earned a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine and a master’s in veterinary surgery from the University of Nairobi. Dr. Mathai attended Loreto Girls High School Limuru.
Dr. Mathai was selected as the NAVC’s 2018 Colin F. Burrows International Scholar, representing the African Small Companion Animal Network (AFSCAN) a project with the World Small Animal Association (WSAVA) dedicated to fund improvements in the veterinary care of companion animals through science and education. Each year, the NAVC International Committee and several WSAVA Board Members review applications and recommendations from veterinarians who meet select criteria, including experience with veterinary continuing education programs in their home country. These scholars attend VMX to learn all they can and bring solutions back to their country. They will present new techniques and protocols at local, regional and national professional meetings, paying forward the inspiration to improve animal care in their home country.
NAVC: Congratulations on being selected as one of NAVC’s International Scholars! We enjoyed meeting you at VMX in February. What stands out about your educational and networking experiences at conference?
Dr. Mathai: The opportunity to listen to lectures from people I have only read about in publications and to interact with vets from all over the world and exchange ideas was great. Seeing new technologies that improve practice, equipment I have only seen in text books, and learning practical skills that would change my personal patient management protocols was amazing. Learning of the new global challenges that vets face, such as compassion fatigue, and realizing that we all face similar problems regardless of where we come from was truly humbling.
NAVC: What role did your host family play during your time at VMX? Former NAVC Board of Directors’ President Gatz Riddell and his wife Kay are two of our favorite people!
Dr. Mathai: I was truly treated like a VIP but, more importantly, as a member of the NAVC family. Drs. Gatz and Kay Riddell were very gracious hosts. They helped me understand the VMX programs, maps, and exhibition hall which was quite large. I had not been to such a large conference before; without their help, it would have been very overwhelming. I truly felt that I was in capable hands. They went over and above to ensure I understood the culture and food. They are very good people.
NAVC: You spent some time after conference at the University of California, Davis, with one of our NAVC board members Harold Davis, Manager, Emergency and Critical Care Service, William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Tell us more about the benefits of that visit.
Dr. Mathai: I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to visit the hospital. I understand that veterinary medicine has made several advances; there is still much to be discovered. The visit challenged me to aim higher, learn more and to want to be part of those advances in my country.
NAVC: No doubt you brought back much to share with veterinary professionals in Kenya. What’s top on your list of what you plan to share? How will you go about doing that?
Dr. Mathai: Topmost on my agenda is improving our CE program. I want to inculcate wet lab programs for a more hands-on approach. Through our vet association, we are responsible for developing CE programs for the membership. Understanding the needs of the members and organizing programs that fit those needs. I will be sharing some of the ideas I gathered through the behind the scenes visits I had at VMX, like organizing networking meetings between industry players and vets to share ideas.
NAVC: What impressions do you have of the United States? Impressions of Americans?
Dr. Mathai: Wow. That’s all I can say. The conference was very overwhelming. The large crowds, the large halls, everything is truly big in America. I learned a lot of American culture courtesy of my hosts, Gatz and Kay. The height of it all was finally seeing what the fuss the Super Bowl was all about! I really enjoyed it all. The people were so cordial and warm and helpful to me.
NAVC: What are the primary challenges of practicing veterinary medicine in Kenya?
Dr. Mathai: Most people always go to the lack of equipment as the biggest challenge. I beg to differ. In my opinion, our biggest challenge is lack of adequate specialized skills. Vets in Kenya have developed very practical patient management protocols. Technology would greatly improve practice so our vast knowledge of both traditional and conventional medicine is the key. Introduction of specialized skill training in different fields would definitely be the turning point for vets in Kenya.
NAVC: Ultrasound is one of your specialties. What attracted you to that technology
Dr. Mathai: While doing my undergraduate studies, I was intrigued by the ultrasounds capabilities yet perturbed by its limited use in practice, mostly attributed to the lack of practical skills in image interpretation. I therefore decided to conquer this mythical creature and reign in the knowledge that would improve patient care and vet practice.
NAVC: Tell us about your job and the work you do in the field. When did you realize you wanted to have a career in this profession?
Dr. Mathai: As a clinician at the university, I am involved in teaching practical skills to our final year undergraduate students, carrying out ambulatory services to the surrounding community for large and small animals. From a tender age I had an inherent love for all animals. There isn’t one photo in my childhood without an animal next to me or in my arms. I loved to nurture things to health and did that often with my parents whenever any of the farm animals were unwell. It was a merger between love and care, thus vet medicine was born to me. From day 1 at vet school doing anatomy rotations, I kept asking “when do we get to see the animals?” It’s really been a dream come true for me to pursue veterinary medicine and to reach the height of my career this far.
NAVC: We know you are very close to your family. Tell us about them. What influence have they had upon your life and success?
Dr. Mathai: I grew up in a small village at the foot of Mount Kenya with mostly my mum and dad, being the last born with a 13 year difference between my elder sister and me. The rest of my brothers and sisters had already left the proverbial “nest”. Because I was brought up alone in a village my parents had to be creative to keep me occupied. A love of science and nature was soon born. Fueled by my mother’s yearning to teach me to be different, I was the only nine year old who was taught constellations, metamorphosis of insects and was allowed to take part in our cattle’s calving. Soon this curiosity turned into passion. Before long I became close to most of the animals at the farm. I had an unlimited number of pets. When they got sick I anguished in their misery.
To be honest I never knew vet medicine existed until I went to high school. The only vet technician I ever met was the inseminator. My desire to nurture and love animals turned into a degree in vet medicine and, thereafter, my dream job to work for the university. I love my work; my favorite time is when patients who came in critical on a stretcher get to walk out of the clinic well. It’s priceless. To see the peace in their eyes, having helped them get better is well worth the long hours. My family’s support to pursue vet training made all the difference. I am eternally grateful to them.
NAVC: What are your dreams for the future?
Dr. Mathai: I dream of making a difference in the Kenyan veterinary practice, through mentorship, improving quality of CE programs and through my teaching duties. I believe that Kenya is at the right stage for a dramatic change in its practice. The initiation of specialized skill classes tell me that vets are ready for the next frontier. I want to be part of process that takes us to new heights.
NAVC: Is there a favorite quotation or song that has special significance to inspire you?
Dr. Mathai: I have always lived by the words of the Desiderata (mwkworks.com/desiderata.html). It has a very sentimental meaning to me. Every year I share it with my students and colleagues. It’s an authentic summary of the true meaning of life. Keep it simple, be true and always be kind.
NAVC: Who have been your inspirations in practice?
Dr. Mathai: Honestly, women who have broken the ceiling in practice have inspired me to do better, aim higher and never give up. Top on that list is my mother, Mary Mathai. Although she isn’t a vet, she taught me hard work. Prof. Susan Mbugua is a Small Animal surgeon, a mentor and close friend. She has always challenged me. Her courage is tremendous. And Prof. Wangari Mathai who had passion for the environment and worked at changing a whole country’s attitude towards the same.
Apply for the 2019 NAVC Colin F. Burrows International Scholarship
Applications are due April 1.