Saddles and Stethoscopes:
The Life History of an Immigrant Veterinarian

Written by Sara Erwin

The next rider was on course, competing for a top spot in the most competitive class of the horse show: The Grand Prix. An equestrian Grand Prix consists of two phases of competition, the first of which includes all horse and rider pairs that paid the entry fee. Each pair enters the ring alone and navigates over a course of ten to sixteen jumps, all of which are around five feet in height. The riders that get around the course without knocking down any rails make it to the seconds phase, the jump-off. A jump-off is a shortened course over the original obstacles, and the goal here is again to go clear, only faster. The winner would receive a substantial amount of prize money. This pair grabbed my attention from the tables of the fundraiser my Equestrian Team was overseeing; I recognized this rider. They navigated the course with ease as I checked the scoreboard for a name, which read Fernando Cardenas. He and his horse finished quickly, but an unlucky rail down kept them out of the jump-off. Following a double check of the night’s program, I realized I knew him as a locally practicing veterinarian.

Upon further research, I found that Dr. Cardenas was the living culmination of my career goals: an equine veterinarian, practice owner, and highly competitive, talented equestrian. My specific aspirations are to achieve the MBA/DVM dual degree from North Carolina State University so that I may open my own veterinary practice, and to continue riding and showing horses throughout my career. Dr. Cardenas’s practice is expansive in terms of reputation, the number of veterinarians under his charge, and the geographic area in which his clients are spread. Practically all of the barns in the area, including the facility that houses the horses the NC State Equestrian Team practices with, use Dr. Cardenas’s practice. All of the equine veterinarians I met prior to Dr. Cardenas seemingly had no free time: for a family, for a significant other, or even for in depth outside hobbies, yet he has both a family and a demanding hobby. He also has time to pursue an additional expensive and time-consuming hobby outside of his career and riding: planting trees.

Dr. Cardenas interested me not only because have so many similar interests and he emulates what I aspire to be, but also because he was born in 1972 in the country of Colombia. Originally, I had only hoped to apply for a job as a veterinary technician at his practice between graduation from undergrad and enrollment into veterinary school, so I could learn from him. This class and assignment has provided me with the opportunity to know Dr. Cardenas on a more personal level, and to explore his heritage and path through life. I hoped to learn how his childhood in Colombia may have influenced his view of America and American people, and how this may have affected his career path. Dr. Cardenas is a very busy veterinarian, and scheduling a time to interview him was a challenge. He is, in fact, so busy that the only time he could give me was after business hours when he was on call.

I arrived at the practice approaching close of business, and the entire property was still buzzing with activity. The practice manager appeared from her office and I introduced myself. She kindly informed me that I was on the schedule to be seen, but Dr. Cardenas was running behind. During that time, I took the liberty of touring the facility by myself. One of the associate veterinarians was examining the progress of a horse with a healing wound in the aisle of the barn. It was feeding time, and the horses in the stalls along the barn aisle waited impatiently and noisily for their dinner. Once Dr. Cardenas arrived, he hurriedly informed me that he just needed to finish up, and then we could begin. When he was finished with his work for the day, we made our way to a picnic table to conduct the interview. The trees planted outside, products of Dr. Cardenas’s second hobby, swayed gently with the rainy breeze. Our conversation was punctuated by emergency phone calls, and eventually ended prematurely due to an emergency. I later sent a follow up email requesting clarification of some answers, and answers to new questions.

The origin of my continued interest in Dr. Cardenas was professional, but through my research of him and his practice, I developed interest in his Colombian heritage. I wanted to know how his childhood and immigration to the United States made him into the person he is today, outside of his lingering accent. I asked him about the generalities of childhood in Colombia, and one aspect stood out in his response: money. The way he experienced his version of equine culture in each country is telling of the class position his family occupied in both:

[In] any South American country, there’s a big, um, gap between rich and poor. And in America there’s more, there’s not that big gap. Therefore, what that means is that [pause] with the riding, we would ride in riding academies and there were grooms that would take care of our horses. When we came to America, we had to do it all ourselves, we had to pick the stalls, clean the stalls, feed the horses. And so that was a change, to see that when you go to the horse show you have to do it all yourself and and all of that. And in South America, people don’t have farms per se, they have clubs, kind of like the gym, where somebody would go. You pay a membership and your horses are kept at that riding academy, and you go there and ride. And when you compete, you compete for your club, and here in America it’s a little bit different, people tend to have more farms, and that’s kind of what we’ve always had is, throughout the time that we came to this country, is different farms.

Though his perception of the North Carolinian equine culture matched that of my experience, his description of the Colombian equine culture surprised me because my assumption was that all equine cultures would be similar across the board, regardless of nation. I am a middle class, suburban North Carolinian, so I have not had the money to afford keeping my horses in a place that does the things Dr. Cardenas describes. There are places in North Carolina that cater to their clients in that way, but those places are reserved for the very rich as the cost of keeping your horses in these facilities is astronomical and difficult to justify. Dr. Cardenas also explained:

The other thing that that’s a big difference, is that its extremely inexpensive to have horses in South America, you know, the cost of feeding them, the cost of boarding them, the cost of horse shows, very very inexpensive when compared to the cost of showing, keeping, boarding horses in America.

Alternately, to combat the relatively expensive nature of keeping horses in the U.S., I had to do everything for myself and my horse. His description helped me realize that his family’s move from Colombia to the U.S. was more than just a change of citizenship, it was also a transition from upper to middle class. His family would have been rich in Colombia, but in the United States, where there is more variation in household incomes, the Cardenas family fit somewhere into the middle class. I was born into a family that was never in a position necessitating abandonment of their home country, so I asked Dr. Cardenas to further clarify his family’s motives for leaving Colombia:

My mother is American, and so, my mother and my father lived in South America. When my mom knew that we were gonna have to get a college education, she knew that obviously getting a college education in the United States would be far better than staying in Colombia. That was reason number one. Reason number two, there was a lot of political turmoil in South America which was making it very dangerous to live there, with Narcos, the drug trafficking, the guerillas. And so growing up in that atmosphere, my parents decided that it would be best to leave. So for our future education, and then to escape the dangers of living in a country that was going through a very tough time.

Considering the infamy of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, I was concerned that Dr. Cardenas’s childhood would have been impacted by the presence of these malicious groups, but upon later reflection, I realized I was more curious about whether or not his childhood would seem “American” to me, and how dangerous it was. I wanted to know if he was able to go out and play with his friends whenever he wanted, if he was able to travel to and from school easily and safely. When I asked him about the impact of these groups on his childhood, he clarified:

“No [pause] no no no, we were very sheltered with it, we were very very sheltered. We didn’t even know what was happening, but we, true story, would have to chain our cars to the wall of the garage to keep them, you know, to prevent them from getting stolen.”

I attempted to empathize with the description Dr. Cardenas provided, and I wondered why he didn’t question the safety of their home, or the need to chain their cars. I realized that there would not have necessarily been a reason for him to question his environment without a basis for comparison, and his childhood wouldn’t seem un-American to me because his mother is an American, so there more than likely would have been cultural crossover between his mother and father.

When I asked about the transition from a Colombian high school to an American high school, I was informed that Dr. Cardenas and his sisters were exposed to the American education system, and therefore American culture while they lived in Colombia, regardless of the prevalence of their mother’s American traditions:

[With] my mom being American, we went to an American school in South America, so when we immigrated to this country, we immigrated to small cit-, town in western North Carolina, so it was a small school, so [starting school in the U.S.] was not a hard transition. It was the first time in a public school, but it was really not a not a hard transition.

This also differs from my experience, as I always attended public schools in North Carolina, while he only attended a public high school in our state, and a private school in Colombia, which mirrored his family’s transition from upper to middle class. The differences are, however, less drastic than I anticipated because he attended an American school in Colombia where “everything was taught in English, except, you know, a class in Spanish.”

My impression was that his parents decided to move to the U.S. in order to better their children’s futures first and foremost. He told me: “yes, that my mom decided that we needed to, right, a lot of kidnapping, and a lot of violence, and so just to grow up in that wasn’t-” and he trailed off and stopped talking, suggesting that safety was a major concern for his parents. Dr. Cardenas never outwardly stated just how important family was, but he later clarified in a response to my follow up email that “family is very close in South American culture and this is very important to me”. I had grown up with close friends of Central/South American descent, and their emphasis on the importance of the family unit always stood out to me much more than my other friends. This importance of family is apparent in Dr. Cardenas through his use of the terms “we”, “our”, and “us”. When he used these terms he was referring to “[his] family in general. (Mom, Dad, Sisters, and Wife). It is all a team effort”. He explained that he has “[two] sisters. Wendy and Christina. They live in different states, so [they all] meet at least once a year for Thanksgiving”. This example gave more warrant to my idea that his parents put the well being of the family before their love of their home country. Dr. Cardenas’s parents did want the best for their children, as he explained his father’s influence on his career, “my dad always [pause] said I should be a veterinarian [chuckles], and casually enough it worked out that, you know, just being with the horses and with being outside”. Dr. Cardenas’s enthusiasm for being outdoors is not surprising; all of the equine veterinarians I know love being outdoors. Veterinarians travel to several different horse farms every work day for the entire year, regardless of the season or the weather. This affinity for nature is similarly expressed through Dr. Cardenas’s hobby of planting trees on the property owned by his business.

Dr. Cardenas’s career choice seems logical as well due to his early and continued immersion in Colombian equestrian culture. Following his decision to pursue veterinary medicine, Dr. Cardenas attended North Carolina State University for both his undergraduate studies, and for veterinary school. It is not uncommon for people to stop riding and showing horses when they attend college, whether for monetary reasons or due to the time demands of a collegiate course load. Sometimes these people become veterinarians and never find the time to resume the sport, so I wanted to know why he was able to continue:

S: Was there ever a time when you were going through vet school or going through undergrad that you questioned whether or not you would be able to continue riding?

F: No, no, and I really dedicated those years to my education, and gave it total priority. Something that was unique about myself was that I continued to live at home through the entire time of pre-vet and vet school, which allowed me to ride a little bit, because I was home. But I remember many Saturday mornings, you know, just studying, and hearing people down at the barn riding, and just being so jealous not being able be there. [pause] So I totally gave up the riding, or did what I could, but the showing and all that was placed on hold. And even when I opened up my business, again focusing on starting the business, the riding really was put on hold, and then just the last couple of years is when I’ve been able to have the help and have the team around to be able to do more riding, which is my passion.

S: You exist as what I really aspire to be. I want to be a practice owner and I want to continue to ride and show as much as I possibly can. So, it really, it’s just reassuring to know that somebody has done it.

F: Right, you have, Right, first you have to establish yourself as a veterinarian, and say sometimes what we see is we get, say, people we’re hiring, and they say they wanna ride, and the one thing we always tell them is you gotta pay your dues first. And then you can, you know, once you have your reputation established, and once you have your following, your clients, then you can start to divide your time to personal. But first, if you’re gonna follow the career as a veterinarian, first you have to establish yourself, and give it 100% and then I can reassure you, as long as you stay healthy, that you’ll be able to do it afterwards.

I asked how much time he spent paying his dues, and how long the process was from starting his practice to obtaining the facility he has now:

And so, I owe it to the education, that has allowed this. Maybe luck, hard work, but the education gets, [pause] a lot of kudos to NC State, and the, it’s a wonderful career. Basically [pause] in ’97, to 2004 [pause] is seven years. So I’ve been practicing veterinary medicine, it’ll be 20 years this June, so let’s say I’ve been practicing for 20 years. And its seven years in my starter home in the city, working out of the garage, and then we moved here, and worked out of here.

Dr. Cardenas also was able to cut a lot of the cost of attending veterinary school, as student debt is a large concern in the field currently, preventing many students from starting their own businesses. I asked how he handled his student loans, because this is a particular concern for me:

You know, I graduated from vet school, with zero [chuckles] loans. With zero, because I lived at home, I never paid for parking. I always walked, I parked at free parking, and my entire four years I’d walk, um, longer. Then I got the North Carolina Health Science and Mathematics loan, that was a loan repayment for areas in need, and so at the time there was, [pause] equine medicine was one of them.

His response that he had no student debt shocked me. I had never met a veterinarian, or anyone that’s even been to just undergrad that had no student loans. For me, student debt was an inescapable reality of going to college.

Living at home helped him monetarily, and also contributed to his ability to continue riding sporadically through this time. Dr. Cardenas’s father is very involved in equine culture. Dr. Cardenas explained “we came to this country with three horses, and three of them were pregnant, one miscarried. But that’s kind of the start of my dad’s, not really mine, but my dad’s breeding program.” His father’s breeding program also produced Quincy Car, the horse that Dr. Cardenas rode in the Grand Prix I attended, and shows internationally:

Quincy was bred by my dad… my dad broke him and then he was, I was visiting for Thanksgiving, when he was four years old, and he asked me to ride him. I took one jump and I could feel the quality, and I bought him from my dad. And then the rest I’ve done it all myself, as far as, yes I’ve had help on the ground, but I’ve been his only rider since the time I bought him. And that’s a great accomplishment to say that you can take a horse from baby to grand prix, or to international level and be able to do that, because not everybody can do that.

I have some experience in training young horses, and it is a very in depth, time consuming process to bring a horse along from knowing nothing to showing and competing at any level. I thought that this talent Dr. Cardenas has would be very influential to his business as an equine veterinarian. Typically, people who compete with their horses seek out veterinarians that compete successfully at a higher level than they do. Since Dr. Cardenas made it to the top three riders at the 2016 Olympic trials, not many people compete at a higher level than that. I asked him if and how his riding affects the way he practices medicine:

For sure, [pause] well a couple of things, having [pause] Quincy’s success has been one of the most, the best advertisement techniques that I could’ve ever done. But then also, being able to to ride at a high level, and be interested in sports medicine and rehab all work hand in hand. Because you’re competing at a high level, there’s people that are competing at a high level as well that have horses that go injured, and want somebody that understands the sport, or understands their needs, or is competing at the same level to to help them solve. So it does affect it.

Quincy is a testament to both Dr. Cardenas’s father’s breeding program, and also Dr. Cardenas’s knowledge as both a veterinarian and a horseman; his equine culture is intertwined with and mutually dependent on his status as a veterinarian. The evolution of his version of equine culture from Colombia to the U.S. has made him able to bring together his career and his passion in such a way is beneficial to all who know him. He can combine his medical knowledge with his knowledge of the sport as he describes to better help his clients and their animals. He is the living culmination of my career goals, and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to pick his brain and explore his life story. His individual experience as an immigrant is one of many, but it is inspiring to understand how his parents fled the infamy of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel, and made a life for themselves in the United States, providing their son with the opportunity to work hard and become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.