Member Spotlight: Heather Simon-Buonocore, VMD, DACVIM (Neurology)

Mar 18, 2024, 12:41 PM by The ACVIM

Heather Simon-Buonocore, VMD, DACVIM (Neurology) | Crown Veterinary Specialists, New Jersey

Dr. Heather Simon-Buonocore is a Board-certified Veterinary Neurologist working in private practice in New Jersey, where she spearheaded the creation of a neurology and neurosurgery department. She earned her VMD at The University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and subsequently completed a rotating small animal internship at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, NJ.  Dr. Simon-Buonocore practiced as a general practitioner for ten years before pursuing a career in specialty medicine.  In 2020, she completed a small animal neurology and neurosurgery internship at a specialty hospital in Texas prior to finishing her small animal neurology residency at The University of Tennessee in 2023.  She achieved Board-certification in neurology and became a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) the same year.

What inspired you to become a Board-certified veterinary specialist?
I was a philosophy major in college and was always fascinated by the mind/body problem and the brain – what defines each of these and how they interact and function.  I also loved various areas of logic, reductionism, and deductive reasoning to solve problems.  It reminds me of the process I go through when I try to put together a complicated exam and neuro-localization.  After veterinary school and internship, I became a general practitioner and loved the balance and variety.  But overtime, I really craved a deeper knowledge base in a particular area.  It was always the neurologic cases that excited me the most.  Neurology is such a multidisciplinary field - incorporating medical neurology, neurosurgery, neuroimaging, neuro-ophthalmology - which is why it is so satisfying to me.   

Are there any resources or pieces of advice that helped you along the way?
My path was certainly not a straightforward one.  Before deciding to leave general practice, I remember reading a book by Sheryl Sandberg called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  A quote in there that really inspired me was, “Still, my argument was that if she was going to work for the next thirty years, what difference does going ‘back’ four years really make?  If the other path made her happier and offered her a chance to learn new skills, that mean she was actually moving forward.”  My advice would be to stay open-minded and search for continued growth.  I am not saying that everyone needs to leave their current career path in the pursuit of something different.  But if you find yourself stagnant, it may be time to re-evaluate and try to widen your perspective in terms of long-term goals. 

Is there a story or experience that stands out in your mind that reaffirmed your decision to work in specialty veterinary medicine?
While I was a general practitioner, I was looking at a video of a colleague’s patient with neurologic disease.  I was at home and talking about the video out loud, to myself really.  But my husband commented, “I have never seen you so incredibly happy about your work.  You are so excited any time you talk of something related to neurology - not just helping the patient and client but the actual work itself.”  It was his observation and encouragement and the support of various other colleagues that reaffirmed my decision to go back and pursue specialty medicine. 

"It’s pretty silly, but I think I had the impression that specialists know everything and once you achieve Board-certification you are this magical being with all the answers.  Of course, now on the other side of things, I realize that even as a specialist there is always so much to learn.  And there are still going to be those cases that vex and elude us. "

How is specialty veterinary medicine paving the way for advances in veterinary science?
When given the opportunity to focus on one area of specialty medicine, we are able to delve so much deeper into the research on various subjects.  We also have access to more specialized procedures, diagnostics, and clinical trials.  For instance, there is a large amount of research ongoing for dogs with gliomas as naturally occurring translational models for humans with gliomas. Having multiple specialists in the same institution also helps facilitate our knowledge base and understanding.

What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
I consider starting a neurology service from the ground up right after residency one of my career successes.  Of course, we are still in the nascent stages of creating the service so there are still some growing pains.  And I would never say I achieved this on my own.  I had a lot of advice from various colleagues around the country.  Most of them were specialists in neurology but also anesthesiologists, radiologists, practice owners, imaging technologists and a radiation oncologist, to name a few.  I also had help from the current employees at the hospital.  I am deeply indebted to the kindness and advice from my fellow colleagues.  And I’m excited to see where the future will take us! 

What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
It was a big challenge to enter specialty medicine after a 10-year hiatus.  I knew that making my way back would require time, dedication, and patience.  I tried to be resourceful and reach out to local specialists.  If there were no opportunities for shadowing, I tried to inquire, utilize my time off, visit hospitals, meet with colleagues, and create my own opportunities at various institutions.  I tried to remember that even though I have much experience in the veterinary world, I am not entitled to anything.  I also tried to remember that in order to learn anything new we have to risk looking stupid and to not get discouraged.  This notion kept me humble.      

Since becoming a Diplomate last year, how has your perspective as a veterinarian changed?
It’s pretty silly, but I think I had the impression that specialists know everything and once you achieve Board-certification you are this magical being with all the answers.  Of course, now on the other side of things, I realize that even as a specialist there is always so much to learn.  And there are still going to be those cases that vex and elude us. 

What advice do you have for those aspiring to become Diplomates?
“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears,” is a quote by Nelson Mandela I like to often repeat to myself.  I would say that no matter what your background or your path, if you have the desire achieve more, please don’t let the fear of failure stop you.  This may require some persistence and patience, but not trying is definitely worse than failing, in my humble opinion.   

Finally, what is something unique about your career, or career path?
My circuitous path to achieve specialization is fairly unique.  But I have no regrets about my individual journey.  In fact, I am incredibly grateful for my 10 years as a general practitioner.  I think it gave me a unique outlook and a way to help bridge the gap between general practitioner and specialist for the best care of the patient. 


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