‘Being pushed outside your comfort zone is a good way to learn’

Simon Johnson, vet nurse

It’s hard to believe it’s seven years since I joined the Vets4Pets Preston Capitol as a client care adviser. I am now head vet nurse.

Back then, I had been planning to complete a master’s degree in photography, but I was struggling to find a way to pay for it. I saw a job advert for part-time work as a client care adviser for a vet practice. I applied, thinking it would allow me to earn some money while studying. Very quickly I found I loved the role, which involved making sure clients had an exceptional experience at the clinic. Up to that point, I had never had a job where I really enjoyed going to work.

When it came to making a choice between photography or a veterinary role, the decision was easy.

The joint venture partners at my practice were really supportive when I told them I wanted to get more involved and have a bigger role in our patients’ journeys and to make a difference.

Initially, I qualified as a veterinary care assistant and, although men are a minority in the vet nursing profession, I then took the plunge and enrolled to train as a vet nurse. I worked full time while completing my nursing training, with one day a week at college and one day for studying and to have a life – sort of. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s also been amazing. I qualified in 2018.

Wanting to make a difference to animals’ lives, I recently applied as a volunteer with Go Pawesome (www.gopawesome.com), a charity set up by an Australian vet nurse. I specifically wanted to help out at a spay/neuter clinic in Ecuador.

I was apprehensive. To be honest, a part of me hoped that, even though I had applied, it wouldn’t actually happen. I had never travelled on my own.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. There were nine volunteers (six vet nurses and three vets). It was an opportunity to learn from people from other countries to see how they approached things.

We were based in a remote village with one road in and one road out – the only vet facility within two to three hours’ travel. Pet owners would begin queueing from 8 am, and they all had questions about their pets. We gave out lots of advice.

The clinic, which was held outdoors next to a church, ran for six days, during which time we spayed/neutered at least 200 animals, mostly dogs, and it was something of a surprise to find ourselves operating on some unusual breeds, including a great Dane and a pug. We also neutered a number of cats. Some of these were very young, weighing just 500 g or so.

Although we had some protection from the sun, we weren’t protected from bugs, wind and sand, or other challenges – such as standing on loose bricks rather than having a level floor to work from.

Local people were fascinated by what we were doing. We had crowds watching us every day – old and young – filming and taking pictures.

It was a very busy but fantastic experience. In the UK, anaesthesia typically has a one or two nurse-to-patient ratio, but in Ecuador I was monitoring up to three animals simultaneously, with maybe 15 patients recovering and people shouting instructions…it was crazy.

We also had to work with a finite supply of resources, which meant we had to be inventive. We used a lot of surgical spirit and got creative with bin bags, which we used to cover the tables and for draping the animals. Every patient received an antibiotic injection, which was necessary due to the surgical environment.

'I was amazed at how much we could do with so few resources'

We had lots of clippers, but when they broke we had to use a pair of haemostats and a blade. I got so much shaving practice that I think I’d make a pretty good barber. I was amazed at what we managed to do with so few resources. One of our clients even fashioned a fancy Elizabethan collar out of cardboard.

The experience really helped me to develop my skills. As head nurse, my role often focuses on developing our vet nurse students, completing administrative tasks and dealing with people. Sometimes it can feel as though I have taken a step away from clinical work.

One of the reasons I applied for the trip was because I wanted to develop my skills in catheter placement and anaesthesia. It was great to receive some very complimentary feedback from the vets I worked with.

I was also exposed to a completely different way of life and perspective. I saw and met people who had few options or life choices – they just got on with it. I approach things differently now – I’m much calmer than I used to be. I am also much more appreciative of what we have and take for granted – technology, resources and staffing levels, for example. We have luxuries that others don’t. As a result of my experience, I no longer have ‘stressful’ days, I have ‘challenging’ ones, and that is an important distinction.

'I am now more appreciative of what we have and try not to take things for granted'

The experience I had in Ecuador was amazing and I learnt a lot – especially about myself. Being pushed outside of your comfort zone is a good way to learn.

The experience definitely changed me, and I plan to do another trip with Go Pawesome in south-east Asia.

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