Despite obstacles, veterinarian has forged his dreams into reality

Carlos on the edge of a mountain lake in the winter, with a dog at his feet.

Furious winds sheared trees and rooftops. Cyclonic gales blasted torrential rain through the mountains. A deluge powered destructive floods and landslides. It was 2016 and Hurricane Otto had landed in Costa Rica. Encompassed by this catastrophic pandemonium, Dr. Carlos Valerio-López rescued his country’s animals.

As the national emergency manager for animal assistance from 2015 to 2018, Valerio-López directed Costa Rica’s response to Hurricane Otto and other natural disasters.

“I worked with the president’s office, government officials, and the general population during disasters,” said Valerio, who achieved his DVM in Costa Rica in 2014. “This life-changing role made me a better professional and leader. It also helped me understand the huge responsibility of helping animals and people in a very vulnerable state.”

Dr. Valerio-Lopez assisting during a procedure.
Dr. Valerio assists with a Transphenoidal hypophysectomy, a pituitary surgery not performed in many other veterinary hospitals.

This experience was one of many that led Valerio to WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, where he is a resident in neurology and neurosurgery at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. This spring, he received the 2022 “Outstanding House Officer” award, an award he also received in 2021.

The House Officer Award is selected by fourth year DVM students. It is based on excellence in teaching, mentoring, acting as a role model, and demonstrating compassion for clients and patients.

Childhood: a difficult start

Valerio was born in Heredia, Costa Rica. Known as “The City of Flowers,” this lush area is tucked inside the country’s north-central mountains. Valerio grew up in this beautiful setting, with cows, horses, and dogs as his favored companions. Despite being surrounded by natural beauty and the animals he loved, his early years were defined by anguish and struggle. Though he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian from childhood, the goal to reality was a rocky journey.

“I didn’t believe I was cut out to be successful or achieve things in life,” Valerio said. “I wasn’t given an understanding that goals could be accomplished by my own efforts – nor the support or encouragement to pursue them. I was made to understand I wasn’t a good student and would fail. I had no self-confidence or self-esteem, and never truly believed I could make it to veterinary school.

“As a teenager, I became a rebel. I skipped class, played guitar, and read politics, philosophy, and Latin American literature. In my inexperienced head and troubled heart, I was convinced my ideals and philosophical position could help change the injustice I saw in the world. Lost, confused, and afraid, I tried to find a place where I could participate and find some self-worth.”

A paradigm shift

In his late teens, Valerio decided to find that place.

“I did a full 180 and made a plan. I decided if I could change my ways and mentality – and build up my grades – I could go to veterinary school,” he said.

At his father’s suggestion, Valerio pursued “agronomical engineering” which is similar to animal science studies in the U.S. He worked to save money for college and gained experience in the veterinary field through a job at a clinic.

“I became a much better student because I had a goal, but I struggled a lot during those years,” he said. “The National University of Costa Rica veterinary school only accepts 35 people a year. I didn’t have the grades or preparation to make the exclusive 35, but I was going to try.”

Despite his paradigm shift in thinking and action, Valerio’s path was arduous. Nevertheless, he persisted.

“The decision about going into veterinary medicine was made every time a new obstacle was there to tell me I wasn’t going to succeed,” he said. “I cried out of sadness, anger, and desperation, and asked myself, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The decision to continue had to be made again and again.

“The answer was what really kept me on the path of pursuing my dream. I couldn’t see myself being happy without being a veterinarian. I just never knew how true that was until I had to decide whether to keep struggling or not. So, I gave my best effort and gave myself a chance.”

Valerio achieved his goal. He was accepted into veterinary school, completed his DVM studies, and fulfilled his childhood dream.

A mentor

In 2014, Carlos came to the United States for an externship in neurology and surgery at Colorado State University. During this experience, he gained insight about the doctor and person he wanted to become.

“I went to Colorado with an endless excitement to learn, but clueless about the high medical standards I’d find. It didn’t take long to realize if I wanted to become a specialist, a path full of challenges, growth, and humbleness was ahead. It seemed frightening and difficult to achieve.

“I started to feel uncertain and began to let my dream go. Then, I met my mentor, Dr. Dan Smeak. He helped me believe my dream was achievable – not because it was easy but because I had the capabilities. He encouraged me to apply for specialization programs in the U.S., despite how nearly impossible it appeared.

“I learned the value of not giving up because, through conversations, I understood his path hadn’t been easy either. Passion for the job, gratitude for what it means to be a veterinarian, and commitment to our patients and clients were valuable lessons he taught me.

“The impact Dr. Smeak had on my development was definitive. He’s a successful veterinarian whose kindness and understanding make those around him better. Everyone loves him, and not because he’s such an amazing surgeon and academic, but because he’s a good, caring person who lives his life with humility. He gave me a deep respect for those who become good mentors.”

Forging a future

A passion for mentoring has become integral to Valerio’s life and work.

“My own experience is why I’m focused on helping others reach their greatest potential,” he said. “People changed my life doing this for me, so I want to do the same. As a neurologist, my ultimate goal is to make things good for others.”

Valerio is committed to developing the field of neurology and improving overall veterinary care.

“I think it’s paramount to focus on students and provide the basis for them to move forward and seek to achieve their maximum present potential and future goals. I also want to collaborate in the evolution of the existing system to meet current needs, instead of continuing to do what we’ve always done in the past.”

Though Valerio is building a future open to new ideas and possibilities, his foundation is set.

“I love to work with animals,” he said. “It’s amazing how pure animals are, and it’s a privilege to help them. It also gives me joy to impact clients’ families positively while helping their pets. I’m blessed to do what I do because I love it and understand that is rare.”