This month, as part of Veterinary Nursing Awareness Month, we're celebrating the hard-working individuals on the frontline of animal welfare. People like Lou, a registered veterinary nurse (RVN) from the UK, who was kind enough to share more about her crucial role in veterinary practice at home as well as in the field abroad, alongside the Mission Rabies team.
LOU NORTHWAY CertVNECC NCert(Anaesth) RVN
Registered Veterinary Nurse @ Wendover Heights Veterinary Centre, Buckinghamshire, UK
Why did you want to become a RVN?
"I had wanted to be a RVN for as long as I can remember. It wasn't until I undertook work experience aged 15 that I really decided that it was 100% for me. Until you are in practice, it's very hard to learn about or understand the role of the RVN when generally only veterinarians are shown on TV - even now! Animal Hospital, a British television show was a big influence on me whilst growing up! I've always loved animals; having grown up owning many rabbits and hamsters, it just felt normal and natural to have a career working with animals."
What does being a RVN mean to you?
"It means more to me than I could even put into words. Having now done the job for 16 years (my whole adult life!), I truly feel like it's who I am - it's my identity. I love that I never dread going to work on a Monday morning - and that I'm rarely bored. I love the fast pace of the practice, working with a brilliant team and having a good relationship with our clients and their pets too! To put it into perspective, I get that same feeling of 'relief' when I walk into work in the morning, like I do when I step inside my home at days end. Work is one of my happy places."
What's the hardest part of the job for you?
"Veterinary nursing isn't all puppies or kittens despite what some may believe (although they certainly are like the 'antidote' on sad days!).
"One thing which really negatively affects me professionally and personally is reading all the negative opinions online about the veterinary profession. There is so much misinformation and lack of understanding. Veterinary teams work so hard to care for pets and uphold animal welfare globally, yet there does sometimes appear to be a lack of appreciation from the public of just how much work is involved."
What makes every day worthwhile?
"So many moments make a day's work worthwhile. Nursing a patient back to health with your team and see them reunited with their owners, experiencing new life, using my knowledge, helping and supporting pet owners or working alongside my awesome team. Too much to list!"
How do you feel at the end of each shift?
"I use my drive home to reflect on the day. Usually, my brain is filled with mixed emotions as we do experience big highs and also big lows. I try to think about what I did well and what I could have done better. I think about the patients I've cared for through-out the day and also patients from the past. I am usually quite tired, but then I give every day my all - and very few days are 'quiet.'"
Who has been your most noteworthy patient and what touched you the most about their story?
"A patient that stands out to me was a dog that was hit by a car who I helped care for. It was a Sunday and I wasn't actually on call, but I got called in to assist my colleagues as an extra pair of hands. At my practice, we have a buddy system so that extra help is always available for big emergencies if needed. This patient had multiple life-threatening injuries and required emergency surgery. An extra member of our veterinarian team was also called in, so there were four of us working on him. My colleague Beth (another RVN) ventilated him for the duration of his operation as he was unable to breathe by himself, due to his injuries. My role was to draw up drugs, open and gather equipment and support Beth with the anaesthetic. The two veterinary surgeons were operating together throughout.
"We all had to pull together and trouble shoot fast. The patient went into cardiac arrest twice during the operation due to ongoing haemorrhage (blood loss), but both times we managed to get his heart going again.
"We urgently needed blood products but we did not have any in stock, nor did we have time to bleed a donor dog, so we performed an autotransfusion - which involves transfusing the patients suctioned blood (from his abdomen) back into circulation using a special filter. By doing this ensured circulating volume improved and oxygen delivery to the tissues was maintained. This enabled the veterinary surgeon to find the bleed and stop it. Miraculously, this patient survived the surgery and I do believe it was down to the incredible teamwork and collaboration of knowledge and experience between the veterinarians and the RVNs that saved his life on this day.
"He was a lovely dog (with equally lovely owners) and it was a really fantastic outcome, as the odds were really against him. His paw print and that afternoon will remain in embedded in my heart for the rest of my career."
What sets apart a RVN from a human nurse?
"I think we are very similar in some ways but different in others. Both professions are incredible & I really admire human nurses. I sometimes think I would like to be an A&E nurse but... I prefer animals most of the time! I think RVNs probably have a broader skill set day-to-day due to having to know how to nurse multiple species of patients - from dogs, cats and rabbits to snakes, lizards... and horses! RVNs also work across the majority of specialisms, whereas human nurses tend to focus in one specific area."
In your opinion, what can non-veterinary people do to improve animal welfare?
"There are so many animal charities that need support and volunteers. You could simply go and walk the dogs at your local rescue centre on a weekend, hold fundraisers for charities close to your heart or do something big and volunteer your time abroad with a charity like Mission Rabies. Non-veterinary volunteers can also play a HUGE role in the education of children and the public - hold educational events to inspire others, share educational resources and links online from factual sources of information. There will never be enough volunteers as there will always be more and more animals that need help."
How do RVNs help educate and advise pet owners and community members? Why is this so important and what's the biggest impact you've seen this have?
"Whilst volunteering with Mission Rabies in Africa, I spent the first week holding educational classes in schools. These lessons covered dog body language, the rabies virus and what to do if they got bitten. I was quite shocked at the broad lack of understanding surrounding dog behaviour, and you could really understand why the dog bite to child death ratio from rabies at the start was so high. On my return to the UK, I went to some local schools to give lessons to children and I decided to see if the children here knew what an unhappy or anxious dog looked like. I was absolutely astounded that the children here in the UK were just as unaware - it really hit home that there is still so much work to be done surrounding dog body language for bite prevention.
"I feel it is really important for RVNs to engage with children and teenagers, as they are our future. Going into schools and giving a careers talk can be very rewarding, but so can be doing exercises like the one I've just explained. You could be the reason a child doesn't get bitten. Here in the UK, thankfully, we do not have rabies, but even so, ensuring dogs have happy and healthy lives is paramount and providing children with the understanding of how dogs might be feeling, and how to behave around them is just as important."
What was your experience with Mission Rabies and how has it impacted you professionally and personally?
"In May 2015, I spent 3 weeks volunteering on the launch project of Mission Rabies in Malawi. I couldn't have prepared myself for the awesome experience that laid ahead! I knew it would be wonderful but it truly was one of the best experiences of my career (so far!).
"My colleague Lisa (veterinarian) had been to India for the previous consecutive years, following the launch project there. Each year she returned and shared what she had been doing, and the amazing work of the charity. 2015 was a year where I was able to join in and I requested that I tag along! I was quite apprehensive to begin with as I had never been to a country like Malawi, nor experienced animals being viewed and treated differently to what they are here in the UK. Lisa and the rest of the team were incredibly supportive and helped ease me in. Everything was very well organised, and we were fully informed about what we were doing and what was expected of us.
"The day started at 5am (yep, early!) and we would head up to HQ for a breakfast of porridge, fruit (and lots of sugar!) to help fuel us for the day. We would arrive in the city to meet our teams and then be out working until about 4pm in the afternoon. Then, it was back to base for dinner, time to prepare our boxes for the next day... and unsurprisingly we were in bed by 8pm!
"The first week I took part in the education drive which involved going into schools and giving lessons to children about dog behaviour, the rabies virus and what to do if they got bitten. The enthusiasm from the children was insane and they were so keen to learn, which was great. You really felt that they took every word in!
"The second two weeks I was out on foot taking part in the vaccination drive. This part of the project involved walking door to door around the city (and in more rural mountainous areas too!) administering lifesaving vaccinations to dogs and cats. We would often walk over 20km per day! The owners were given an information leaflet to educate them about the disease. Most of the locals were extremely grateful for our efforts and many shared that they had lost loved ones to the virus. Every time you heard this it made it real, and it was hard to hear when you know that the virus is 100% preventable if vaccination was widely available not just to dogs, but to humans too.
"Lisa and I were put together as a part of team 'Leopard' which included the help and support of six other Malawian volunteers who were brilliant and help us navigate our way around. After each vaccine had been administered, the data was recorded on a special GPS phone where the data was analysed at HQ. The dogs would then get a stripe drawn on their heads so we could keep track of who had been done, and who had not.
"At weekends, we held static vaccine drives at schools around the city. One day Lisa & I vaccinated over 500 dogs (and some cats!) between us.
"In just 20 days, all of the volunteers vaccinated over 35,000 dogs in the city and educated over 45,000 children, which was amazing. It was hard work but absolutely worth it.
"We were given two 'days off off per week where the Mission Rabies team would organise excursions for us. These days off were wonderful and involved exploring the countryside, going on safari, seeing the local wildlife... and taking a trip to lake Malawi which was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. These two days of R'N'R were much needed after the busy days that preceded them.
"Professionally, it impacted me in the sense I appreciated just how much easier it is the access veterinary care here, in the UK, but also hit home about how much work there is to be done in other parts of the world. The skills of veterinary nurses (and vets!) are very much needed.
"Personally, the experience gave me a much wider perspective - not just in regards to my job but my life in general. I was completely out of my comfort zone and it did test me mentally and physically each day. I met some amazing people whilst there (some whom I am still in touch with!) and I cannot recommend Mission Rabies enough for your first veterinary charity experience. Every year, when I read updates in how fewer child deaths due to rabies are seen in the city it's amazing to feel like I/we helped with that. In addition, Mission Rabies is one of the very few projects which directly saves the lives of both dogs, cats and humans. #OneHealth"
If you could give one piece of advice to a young aspiring RVN, what would it be?
"I would strongly recommend you seek work experience in a few different veterinary practices because everywhere is different and it will give you a broad perspective. I feel so enormously excited for you that you are considering a career as a RVN because, even after 16 years in practice, I still love going to work every day and have had so many amazing experiences as a result.
"Veterinary nursing opens so many doors and opportunities - there are very few careers where you can literally pick a location in the world and you will highly likely find a veterinary nurse job.
"Good luck and cherish every moment!"
Thank you to Lou, and to RVNs everywhere for going above and beyond to help animals in need.