Monday, March 7, 2016

Doing Diversity with the Canine Conga

Veterinarian Dr. Betsy Sigmon, owner of Creature Comforts Animal Hospital in Cary, North Carolina, has recently published her first book: a children's book titled Cha Cha ChocoBelle and the Canine Conga. I caught up with Betsy last month to pick her brain about her writing experiences and how using her creativity to educate the younger generation can make a difference.

A champion of educating the young, Betsy utilizes both her own clinic and other venues to host Kid-Vet days where children visit and learn about being a veterinarian. This includes instruction on how to conduct a physical exam (kids use stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts and sometimes the hearts of a helpful volunteer dog) and how to look at radiographs, as well as watching procedures such as cleaning a dog's ears and acupuncture. Just this past January, Betsy's clinic held its first annual kids vet camp. Betsy says her experiences teaching children about veterinary medicine was part of her inspiration to write a book. "It was a combination of things," she says about her inspiration. "Funny interactions, watching kids' eyes light up when they hear a heart beat, and frankly a way to say thanks to all those who helped me along life's journey."

The title character of Betsy's book was inspired by her very own dog, a rescue Chihuahua-Dachshund mix named Taco Belle, who, says Betsy, helps keep her grounded as she makes tough medical decisions. "There's lots to be said for rescue animals that don't have a great pedigree," she says.
Taco Belle and Betsy's son last Christmas - courtesy B. Sigmon

In fact, Betsy's book focuses on diversity as the main character ChocoBelle--whose journey to find a home helps her discover her love of dance--encounters disabled and rescue animals. "I tried not to duplicate any current kids series and also to be inclusive of minorities and animals with disabilities," Betsy says.

Betsy admits to what I've always wondered--that writing for children is deceptively hard. "It was a stretch," she says. Writing for younger people doesn't mean dumbing it down; it means writing differently. Madeleine L'Engle, author of the well-known children's book A Wrinkle in Time, once said: "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

"In mentoring students from North Carolina State's College of Veterinary Medicine, I make them write a two page continuing education article on a particular subject that a 7th grader can read," Betsy continues. "So I simply take it one step further to write for a 7-year-old to read. I bought a few kid's books to get in the groove and put the content of my story on my iPhone notes."
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

For younger readers, Betsy says an author has a double challenge--to make the work fun for both the child and the reader. "I put some surprises in the drawings that adult humor will pick up, but the kids not so much," she says. "The biggest 'like' report is when I hear parents state the book has become a repeat read."

Although this first book is directed toward kids, Betsy also writes a blog (Taco Belle Times) on her clinic's website that adults will find helpful. "The blog shows a side of me when not wearing a lab coat," she says. "It lets me explain a topic in the news that may have human, pet, or One Health implications in a manner that hopefully simplifies the content from a veterinary article or national news. I enjoy writing for both kids and adults."
Betsy Sigmon, DVM, teaching students about veterinary medicine - courtesy B. Sigmon

Despite a modest proliferation of published vet memoirs over the past few years, children's books on the topic of veterinary medicine are still few and far between. Both Betsy and myself aren't sure why this is, as it would seem that animals and medicine are a mix rife for the interest of the young. However, Betsy looks at it in a positive light and acknowledges how challenging it can be to educate young people. "It is a challenging job for teachers to meet the expectations of parents, kids, and administrators," she says. "This book is my personal way to show humble gratitude to those educators that inspired me."

Betsy has a reverent respect for the scientists who have worked in the past and continue to work toward making the future bright. "The research scientists that go to work each day to make a difference in the long run, the companies that invest in long term research and development, the discovery of the DNA helix by Watson and Crick, and the veterinary and medical clinicians that challenge themselves to improve the lives of others--those are my heroes," she says. "I have been placed in a position to inspire young children in a positive manner while sharing our profession--pretty cool!"
Photo: Kathyrn Trogdon

In classrooms and libraries when Betsy has gathered a young group to learn about heart murmurs and ingested foreign bodies, she tells the kids this: "When you win the Nobel Prize, I am expecting a first class ticket to the award ceremony because I know one of you today is going to be an extraordinary scientist from this day forward!"

I don't think you can get much more inspirational than that.

Catch you next month!