Vet tech holding puppy
Every year the veterinary profession honors its unsung heroes by celebrating National Veterinary Technician Week (October 11 through 17). Though we rely on them every day to do tons of our heavy lifting, we don’t often give them enough credit — not in public anyway. Appreciating them every third week in October is one of the many ways in which we express our gratitude for all they do. 

Case in Point: Mary

When I first graduated, I thought I’d fast-track my practice experience by throwing myself to the wolves. Which explains why I accepted a position at a regional animal emergency room and started working the graveyard shift well before the bloom had faded on my graduation day flowers. 

You might call this kind of work “trial by fire.” Except that Mary was there. Which made it more like “trial by veterinary nurse.”

By sheer virtue of being a veterinarian’s right-hand person in most medical procedures, Mary was a seasoned technician who knew the drill and could provide invaluable prompts, especially for a newly minted vet like me.

Mary was there for the love of animals and her profession, of course, but she was also there to make sure that no veterinarian ever mismanaged her patients. She would surreptitiously check my calculations, kindly offer suggestions, scrub in on surgeries, and generally clue me in on what my superiors and subordinates expected of me. 

Without Mary, I would have survived (as would my patients have, I believe), but the process probably wouldn’t have been as “pretty.” Nor would I have learned half as much as I did in my first two years of practice (or stayed half as sane as I did). She was, effectively, my mentor –– and a masterful one at that.

Veterinary technicians (aka veterinary nurses) like Mary are rarely described as mentors. Yet the reality of human and animal practice alike is that quality mentorship is tough to come by for doctors who desperately need it. But doctors, unfortunately, tend to consider themselves too busy or too important to “hold colleagues’ hands” and tend to focus instead on barreling through the next task.

Lessons From the Tech Playbook

Which brings me to the point of my post. There are plenty of things veterinarians would do well to pick up from their nursing counterparts:

1. “Holding hands” (aka teaching). Despite the fact that we’re taught in school the best way to learn a procedure effectively is via mentorship (“watch one, do one, teach one”), once out in practice, we tend to think ourselves superior to the task and forget all about the importance of teaching. 

Veterinary technicians never forget this. They know that a big part of their job involves training new staff members. We also know that the best techs are the best teachers. Given that reality, veterinarians should emulate our best and take on some of the teaching duties, too.

2. It’s OK to hug your clients. When first out of school, I felt it “unprofessional” to hug my clients. Expressing sympathy was best done with a few choice words. My techs, however, taught me that a well-timed hug is way better than words in certain instances. The hard part is getting the timing right.

3. It’s OK to cry. Nurses cry; doctors don’t. That fallacy has probably led to more pent-up stress than any other in medicine. Those who deal in life-and-death issues like we do should feel free to cry whenever they need to. Techs taught me that, too.  

4. Never be afraid to ask for help. Asking for help is a critical skill, not least because you can’t easily keep learning without it. Veterinarians, however, sometimes forget this as soon as they leave school behind. 

5. To err is human; to admit to it is part of being a great pet nurse. No one likes to admit she’s wrong, but people with fancy degrees (doctors, especially) seem especially loath to cop to it. Veterinary technicians, however, seem to have been taught to check their egos at the door. 

6. Fashion should take a back seat to comfort. I’ve spent the better part of my career bucking the comfortable clothing thing. As I see it, clogs are for little Dutch girls and sneakers for running. Why should I wear either of the two? Twenty years later, I’m willing to wear scrubs and sneaks, but only because vet techs finally brought me around to it.

7. Never ever let anyone see you’re having a bad day. As a breed, technicians tend to keep it together in front of patients, pet owners and co-workers, regardless of whether they’re having a crappy day or not. We should all take a page out of this book. 

8. All those pockets are good for something. Fill them! One tech I know carries bandage scissors, hemostats, pens, writing pads, thermometers and even syringes in her scrubs. It’s like a clown car in those pockets! Would that I could be so thoroughly organized!

 9. Patients are No. 1. Always. This is the best thing about veterinary technicians. They will always push back whenever they believe that what’s being asked of them is not in their patients’ best interest. The hierarchy for them is plain: Patients always come first. None of us should ever lose sight of that. 

Happy National Veterinary Technician Week! And a big thank you to all the techs who helped me throughout the years.

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