Dr. Mark Helfat ’77: From dairy farms to D.C.

If you ask Dr. Mark Helfat ’77 to list one of his most memorable experiences as a veterinary student, he’ll likely tell you about doing blood draws on bulls. “I worked for the mastitis lab, and every two weeks they would send me to the bull barn to draw blood—talk about wearing a diaper,” Helfat laughs. “I’d be going eye-to-eye with these animals that were the size of a pick-up truck with heads the size of a refrigerator—with just a few bars between us.  Thank you very much, Cornell, for that experience.”

Though there may be a touch of sarcasm when voicing that last sentiment, Helfat is genuine about his fondness for Cornell. From his early days as a DVM student “nerd”, to his recent roles in national leadership, Helfat’s connection to his veterinary alma mater has stayed strong. “I went to three schools that have strong alumni networks—Philips Exeter, Wesleyan, and Cornell—and Cornell is dearest to my heart.”

Born and raised in Queens, NY, and now a resident of southern New Jersey, one might assume that Helfat would be predisposed to prefer small animal medicine—far from it.  Grumpy bull encounters and all, he was smitten with dairy medicine. “It was a type of med that excited me,” says Helfat. “Everything from checking cows and telling a farmer if they were pregnant or not, and when they were due—to walking through and finding a displaced abomasum and right then and there anesthetizing her and doing the surgery.”

While cows were his primary passion, Helfat also loved small animals--beagles, to be exact--which he first fell in love with during his time working with the teaching beagles at Cornell. After graduation, he worked at a mixed animal practice first in Amsterdam, NY, and later  in southern New Jersey, which over the years became solidly small animal. It was there, in 1979, that Helfat stumbled into his next passion—veterinary advocacy. He attended a local veterinary continuing education meeting where someone was looking for volunteers to serve on the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA).  “I foolishly raised my hand, and that’s how it all started,” says Helfat.

Since then, Helfat has been a continuous member of NJVMA, serving as Vice President, President-Elect, President, Immediate Past-President, and on numerous committees. From 2002-2011, he served as one of the NJVMA delegates to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) House of Delegates. Currently, he is chair of the AVMA Board of Directors.

In these roles, he’s helped establish the vet services loan repayment program, which helps pay the student loans of any veterinarians working in underserved areas in the country. This program touches upon a topic that’s near to Helfat’s heart.  “Student debt is at the top of my list of issues I care about,” he says. “it’s almost embarrassing to think about the money I did not spend to go to vet school.  I wasn’t spending more than five-to-ten thousand to go to school a year, and I could easily work enough to pay for that.” Helfat knows that current students have a much heavier financial burden.  He’s also passionate about maintaining the quality of an American veterinary education at the highest level of any country in the world— “that’s a goal that really keeps me excited,” he says.

This excitement has sustained Helfat throughout his career as a veterinarian, which as a primary care small animal practitioner, might have become slightly monotonous. “It has really prolonged my career,” he says. “It opened up a whole new world to national and international issues in veterinary medicine.” He does admit that leadership comes with a price. “You have to have a backbone—you will attract critics. Nonetheless, I’d do it all the same.”

Was this love for advocacy with him since the early days?  Helfat laughs. “I paid my measly ten bucks to SCAVMA and never did a thing—I was a total nerd, all I did was study.” Two of his Cornell classmates, Drs. Joseph Kinnarney and Douglas Aspros, have both served in the AVMA, and Helfat notes how having fellow alumni has made the experience all the better. “It’s nice to have Cornell friends there over the years—what are the chances that you’d get to serve on the board with two people you know, with that common history?  Cornell runs very deep in all of our blood.” Helfat says.

Now, Helfat will be stepping away from an active role in national leadership once his term as AVMA Board of Directors chair ends in July—but he’s making sure that the next generation of volunteers will take up the standard.  “It’s time to let other people come up—I’m taking up a spot,” Helfat explains. “And it’s our responsibility to make sure someone is encouraged to come and carry on that role.”