By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Nov. 3, 2016
WEST PALM BEACH — Dr. Celia Oberto has been a veterinarian since 1987, when she was awarded a doctorate from the University of Florida.
She has cared for hundreds of cats, dogs, birds and other assorted critters for nearly three decades.
This year, for the first time, she started caring for a few human beings, too.
“You hear all these negative things about millennials,” Dr. Oberto reflected recently during a break between patients. “But these kids are very dedicated, very smart. They’re the kind of kids you would want to grow up and become vets. I wish I’d had this program when I was in high school.”
For four hours every week, seven honors students from Wellington Community High School volunteer at Dr. Oberto’s All Care Animal Clinic in the Crosstown Plaza at Community Drive and N. Military Trail in West Palm Beach.
They watch, help, listen and find out if they really do want to be veterinarians.
“Dr. Oberto is a mother figure to me,” says Elizabeth Quintana, 18, of West Palm Beach. “She’s inspirational, smart, and she takes time. She’s giving me a good strong foundation for the medical field in general.”
Ms. Quintana and her six colleagues are in the school’s four-year Equine/Pre-Veterinary Program, part of the district’s Department of Choice and Career Options, which offers qualified students the chance to explore potential careers.
In addition to veterinary medicine, Wellington High also offers Choice programs in marketing, fire science and the fine arts.
“They’re the best students we have at our school,” says Erik Wilkinson, Wellington High’s program coordinator. “It’s a four-year program, so to get in they have to have a B-average from 8th grade on and have taken Algebra 1 by 8th grade as well.”
All Care Animal Clinic is one of 12 veterinary offices or farms throughout Palm Beach County that host the school’s pre-veterinary students.
Now, in addition to Lela and Indy – the office cats – Dr. Oberto shares the space with these five girls and two boys.
One of them is her son, Nelson Olaguibel, 17, who persuaded his mother to become a host after she spoke at a school Career Day.
You might say he was born to the breed.
“I started helping out here when I was 8 or 9,” he recalls. “I used to cry when my mom had to put an animal down. But you have to be more professional.”
In the relatively short time they have together, Dr. Oberto’s most important goal is to instill in the students a sense of empathy for both the animals and their people.
“I want them to understand we have to be sympathetic,” she says, “and maybe offer a second option.”
In vet school, she recalls, students were encouraged to explore every avenue, but tests are expensive and treatment options numerous.
“It’s a difficult profession,” she says. “People think we just treat dogs and cats, but we’re the only doctors who are legally allowed to euthanize our patients.”
And so she tries to emphasize compassion with the students, while also giving them just enough real-world experience to understand what a veterinary career can entail.
Elisa Morris, 17, came to Wellington High from Palm Beach Gardens to participate in the program.
“I’ve learned how to hold a small dog down.” She demonstrates, placing one arm under an imaginary dog, the other over the back. “A big dog? I haven’t tried that yet.”
Some come to Dr. Oberto knowing they want to become a veterinarian and find their experience with her even more affirmative.
Antonio Perrella of Lake Worth had a dog named Charlie when he was five. Now he’s 17 and has a dachshund named Pixie, a Mexican salamander named Juan, three leopard geckos named Dragon, Sergio and Blossom, and a hamster named Steven.
“There’s nothing more I want to do than work with animals,” says Perrella, who hopes to treat large zoo animals.
“I wonder what they’re thinking,” he explains. “Not if they can understand me necessarily, but what their life experience is like.”
Some come away committed to medicine, but not veterinary medicine.
“I want to be a surgeon,” Elizabeth Quintana says. “An OB-GYN neonatal surgeon, working with risky pregnancies. I love people, I love interacting, and if I’m going to do something in medicine, I want to do something that helps people.”
And some discover that loving a pet and wanting to make pets your profession isn’t right for them.
“I like volunteering, but I don’t want this for a career,” Genesis Fernandez, 18, of The Acreage has decided. “I like animals a lot, but I don’t like hurting them … I’ll brush their teeth.”
Emma Hoffman, 17, of Lake Worth, was put off by what she calls the “grossness and blood and stuff” that veterinarians encounter.
“I had to take a fecal sample from a dog,” she confides, “but that’s not my thing.”
“I’m thinking about interior design.”
Pictured above: Dr. Celia Oberto, center, conducts a check-up of Clementine, a 4-year-old mixed breed patient, while Emma Hoffman, 17, left, and Genesis Fernandez, 18, assist. Hoffman and Fernandez, both seniors at Wellington Community High School, are enrolled in the school’s Equine/Pre-Veterinary Program and intern at the clinic a couple days a week. Photo by Elizabeth Burks/Palms West Monthly