National week recognizes vet technicians’ importance

by Mike Enright

Sydney is one brave 10-year-old.

Her friendly demeanor and constant enthusiasm mask her serious illness. But beneath her happy exterior, the golden retriever suffers from lymphoma.

Diagnosed in September 2005, Sydney underwent six months of chemotherapy treatment, successfully sending the cancer into remission. Recently, the lymphoma has returned, and veterinarians must use new drugs to try and suppress it once again.

“The cancer has been resistant so far,” said Jody Larson, a veterinary technician in the oncology department at the University’s Veterinary Medical Center on the St. Paul campus.

Larson, who has treated Sydney since the dog first arrived at center, is one of 118 University technicians who are being honored this week as part of National Veterinary Technician Week.

Pat Berzins, the center’s operations director, said vet techs play an integral part in providing care.

“They free up time for the doctors to spend time on patient care,” Berzins said. “(Techs) do just about everything needed to keep doctors moving.”

Dr. Roberto Novo, a University veterinary surgeon, said he couldn’t do his work without help from the techs.

“They’re basically our eyes, our ears and our hands on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “You could run a hospital with fewer doctors, but not with fewer technicians.”

Vet techs deal with owners more directly and often serve as a contact point between them and veterinarians, said Michelle Miller, an oncology tech.

“Especially with chemo(therapy), we’re on the front lines,” Miller said. “It’s more than just diagnosing the problem. A lot of it is emotional management.”

On a typical day in the oncology department, patients arrive in the morning and techs meet with owners and answer any questions they have, she said.

Patients then undergo a physical exam administered by techs. After the exam, the animals are taken to be checked out by a vet.

Chemotherapy treatments are administered in the afternoon and patients usually go home the same day, Miller said.

Fourth-year veterinary student Kelly Griffin, who is currently on a two-week rotation with the techs, said she has learned a lot while working with them.

Griffin helped Miller examine Sydney on Monday. Miller had Griffin feel points on the dog’s throat and hind legs, showing her how to check the size of Sydney’s lymph nodes. The two comforted Sydney as they examined her fur and gum coloration.

When it comes to examining patients, “technique is huge,” Griffin said.

She said she enjoys being on rotation because it is much more applicable to the work she’ll be doing after college.

“In your first three years, you are spending eight to 10 hours a day in a lecture hall,” Griffin said. “But (treating patients) is what most of us came here to do. I’m probably going to be treating 20 patients a day when I’m a vet.”

When vet students are on rotation at the center, they often help take care of new clients and mostly focus on examining and diagnosing patients, Miller said.

Berzins said the center treated about 10,000 animals last year, mostly from the Twin Cities area. While the center does treat large animals, more of their patients are smaller ones like cats and dogs because of the hospital’s urban location, she said.

Paul Weinand, a tech specializing in large-animal medicine, said he and his colleagues perform a lot of the same tasks as techs who focus on smaller animal care, but on a larger scale.

“If you have a downed cow or horse it takes a lot more people (to treat) than, say, a dog,” he said. “We have to worry about getting stepped on. With smaller animals, you worry about being bitten.”

Weinand said large-animal techs usually deal with horses, but on rare occasions, they get more exotic patients.

The center has treated dolphins, tigers and orangutans, but Weinand said his favorite patient was a baby giraffe from the Como Zoo.

It’s not very often you get to treat a giraffe, he said.