Advice for New Vet Techs

Posted: Jun 3, 2014
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Megan Brashear with patientI had a first yesterday. At work. For someone who has been in emergency/critical care for almost 15 years, I don’t get too many firsts anymore. It was an 18-year-old cat with laryngeal paralysis and the owners elected to have a tieback procedure done.

I’ve been involved in a handful of canine laryngeal tieback procedures but even those don’t come along every week. But a cat? My favorite moment was during the surgery prep period when I asked Dr. Richter how many of these she had done on cats – I got a half smile beneath the surgical mask and she held up some photocopied pages from a surgical textbook. I wasn’t the only one claiming this as a first! To my mild surprise and absolute delight, the procedure went quite well. Anesthesia was uneventful, the 18-year-old cat cartilage held up enough, and the cat was extubated and oxygenating well when I left him in the ICU.

Next week I am tasked with talking to second-year veterinary technician students about compassion fatigue and burnout; how to keep that “new grad enthusiasm” on the tough road of being a professional veterinary technician. Burnout is high, career changes are common, and crabby technicians happen. How do I encourage technicians to stick with it?

First, be somewhere that challenges you. Be somewhere that, 15 years in, you’re doing something you’ve never done before. As someone who is spoiled with the unique caseload at DoveLewis, that sounds easy, right? It doesn’t have to be limited to your work. Go outside of that to experience a first. Work relief at an emergency practice. Work some shifts at a large animal or mixed-practice hospital and vaccinate some horses or cows. In Portland, you can volunteer with the Audubon Society and help with huge birds and wildlife. Being a veterinary technician is not limited to your practice, so if you feel like you’re in a rut, get out on a day off and see what else the profession has to offer!

Second, get involved. On the national level, NAVTA is our professional organization, and a large and active membership is required to make changes. Make it a priority to pay the yearly dues, keep track of what the NAVTA leadership is doing, and know that you have a voice. Get involved in your state association as well. Don’t have a state association? Get one started! That’s probably a first for many of us, starting and running a state technician association. NAVTA can help you with that. State associations get involved on the local level with veterinary legislature, provide CE, and give members the opportunity to network and get to know their colleagues.

Third, keep learning. Medicine is changing, and it will continue to change and advance. It is all of our responsibility to keep up with that change. Subscribe to at least one veterinary medical journal and actually read it. Attend whatever CE you can; the internet has opened up a whole world of continuing education for veterinary professionals and it won’t cost nearly as much as a plane ticket to get to a large conference. But if you can, go to a large conference. And actually talk to strangers. Talk to other technicians working all over the country. You’ll be surprised at how much you have in common and how much you can offer each other. Wander through the exhibit hall and look at all the fun new toys and see what’s happening at the large specialty hospitals. Go to a lecture about llama emergencies. You may never see a sick llama in your life, but their GI tracts are SUPER interesting. Buy a nerdy textbook so that you have somewhere to go to look up that weird cancer that you heard about.

Fourth, stop complaining. About all of it. Clients, your boss, your hours, your pay, that new policy, that barking dog, that gerbil that bit you, the fact that you’re stuck training the new girl, everyone is stupid, no one works as hard as you, you’re the only one who ever does that. Just STOP COMPLAINING. Every time you complain, you focus on everything that’s bad about your job. Is it any wonder why you burnout and go looking for something else? Every once and a while an evening of adult beverages and some hilarious stories that allow you to vent your frustrations is necessary, but the day-in, day-out whining about everything terrible only serves to make you and those around you miserable. Be a force for good change in your life, and in your profession. See #2.

Lastly, make some career goals for yourself. Think about what you’re good at, then do something for yourself to grow that skill. I found early in my career that I enjoyed preparing lectures and teaching others. So I started doing that in my own hospital. I worked through the application and study process and became the first VTS at DoveLewis. I talked to a few colleagues at other practices (AKA networking) and offered to teach some things to their staff (for free) for the experience and to get better at it. I started teaching first aid to the pet owner community and volunteering to teach those skills to doggie daycare providers. I participated in panel discussions at tech schools to get involved with students. I told my boss what I enjoyed doing so that when the opportunity to do my current job came up, my name was in their head. It takes knowing yourself and what you’re interested in, and then talking about it, volunteering to do it, and DOING IT to move forward. Don’t sit back and wait for your dream job to approach you, take an active role in getting there.

The job of veterinary technician can be tremendously difficult, but it is also tremendously rewarding. I hate to see so many talented people burnout and leave, and that will continue to happen. But hopefully something I’ve said may help you stick with it a little longer and continue to contribute to our field. Good luck!