Stepping up, stepping aside: The AO VET journey is a continuum of education and learning

The AO VET journey begins with stepping up and answering the call to drive excellence in veterinary patient care, said AO VET International Board (AO VIB) Chairperson Jeffrey Watkins. Inevitably, he said, that journey also includes stepping aside to make space for the emerging generation of veterinary orthopedic surgeons to continue the AO legacy of transforming surgery and changing lives.

Established in 1959, just 10 years after the AO was founded, AO VET continues to set new standards in education, community development, research, and development. If anyone knows the full AO VET trajectory, it’s Watkins, who began his own AO VET journey as a consumer of the AO VET education, became a renowned AO VET educator, and today leads the AO clinical division as chairperson of AO VIB.

“I started over 40 years ago in the profession and, early on, I was a consumer of education. AO VET is where I began to get my orthopedic education; I had great role models coming through my residency and one of those was Jörg Auer,” recalled Watkins, a professor of large animal surgery and group leader in the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Services’ Department of Large Animal Medicine & Surgery (College Station, Texas, United States).

It was Auer who inspired Watkins’ AO VET involvement.

‘A great journey’

“As one of my mentors, I saw his engagement with AO VET and, as a consumer of that education myself, I became very interested in becoming a part of that and eventually trying to give back to it,” Watkins said. “It’s been a great journey…for my education in terms of making me a better professional and improving patient care and improving my ability to be an educator. I think these are some of the real strengths that the AO brings to orthopedic education.”

Preparing the path for the emerging generation of AO VET faculty is an important part of that journey, he added.

“Not only are we about improving patient care—whether it’s a horse, a dog, or a person—we are also about educating the next generation of educators,” Watkins said. “There’s a huge commitment within the AO family to bring these people along and to educate them so that they can improve patient care and also become the next generation of educators.”

Passing the baton

The enthusiasm of the AO family is infectious: New members feel included and senior members care about what they have to say.

“As they progress through the profession, their introduction to the AO, and eventually engagement in the AO family, you have to step back, move out of the space, and let them occupy the space,” said Watkins. “I think that’s sometimes a difficult thing for people to do because we all love being in this space, but at some point, we have to step back and make room for the young people to come along, take our space, and actually make it better—because they will.”

Passing the baton to the next generation is essential, he said, offering Luca Vezzoni as an example of the emerging generation of AO VET “superstars.”

“These are the people who come up through the profession and you say, ‘This person has a place in leadership; this person has a place at the higher levels of the AO,’” Watkins said. “You mentor that individual and give them opportunities. If your impression is correct…they take those opportunities, they engage, they take over—and you step back and say, ‘Well done’ and then you ride off into the sunset.”

Like Watkins, Vezzoni knows the value of mentorship: He was mentored in part by his father, Aldo Vezzoni, a widely respected member of AO VET’s international faculty.

“I’ve always been fascinated by his work,” Vezzoni said of his father. “After graduation, I started working with him and I got more and more fascinated by orthopedic surgery, so that was probably a natural pathway.”

But Vezzoni’s AO mentors don’t stop with his father.

‘Always learning’

“I consider all of the faculty at AO courses mentors because all of them have been inspiring,” said Vezzoni, now an AO VET international faculty member himself. “Even when I’m giving lectures, I’m learning a lot from other lectures. That’s what I really like about the AO courses: It’s not just teaching; it's always learning—probably more learning than teaching, I would say. Learning from our mentors is important: My father still inspires me. He’s still learning, studying, and trying to improve every day. That’s something we have to transmit to the next generation: Never stop learning. Even if you think you have arrived and are a good surgeon, you can always get better.”

‘You can always come home to Davos’

Watkins shares that view about continuous learning—and he’s confident that the AO is in good hands going forward. Case in point: the AO’s flagship annual event, the AO Davos Courses, scheduled December 3–14 this year.

“It’s great to be back in person after what we experienced in the last few years,” he said, “To not only see your family but to see it expand, to have the opportunity to meet new people, and to interact with the next generation are inspiring to me. One of the things you realize is that, as you step back, you know that the AO is in good hands, but you’ll always be part of the family. You can always come home to Davos.”

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