The joys and challenges of island working

Shona Jack, veterinary nurse

I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school. Initially, I started an art and design course, but quickly realised I wasn’t very talented! I tried psychology, but it didn’t meet my expectations so I transferred to biology, which had been my favourite subject at school.

After graduating with an honours degree, I considered staying on in academia to do a PhD. While applying for funding and waiting for the right option to come along, I qualified as a pharmacy dispensary assistant.

An offer to do a masters by research was tempting because I thought it could be a stepping-stone to a PhD and it was during my masters degree programme that I realised a veterinary nursing career ticked all the right boxes for me.

I took the higher national diploma route into vet nursing – studying at SRUC Barony –and was glad at last to find my ideal job.

After qualifying, I registered with the RCVS and was offered a full-time position as a vet nurse (RVN) in my training practice. It’s a small, rural, mixed practice in the Shetland Islands.

Located where we are means that we treat a huge variety of animals – from cats and dogs, sheep and cows to otters and seabirds, reptiles and parrots. This can be exciting as well as challenging when trying to plan nursing interventions.

A typical day begins with patient admissions and triage, followed by preparing and monitoring patients through surgery. Other tasks might include taking radiographs, giving phone advice about a poorly sheep or discussing parasite control. Afternoons involve reuniting pets with their owners once they are ready to go home, consultations, carrying out any necessary laboratory work and, finally, tidying, cleaning and sterilising everything ready for the next day. It’s the variety that I love, and I find unusual cases especially fascinating.

'I see vet nursing as a ticket to adventure and a chance to see the world'

Vet nursing requires a lot of problem-solving and thinking outside the box, but it is very satisfying. My colleagues are great; our incredible team makes me feel supported and they also make me laugh.

Although we’re lucky to live in Shetland, being on an island is one of our biggest challenges. For example, when a patient requires referral to a specialist, the logistics necessary to achieve this can be tricky. We also have patients on smaller islands nearby and getting them in for a check-up or getting treatment to them is weather dependent. It can also be difficult to get to CPD events or training courses.

As an RVN, the greatest skill I have acquired is learning to be organised. Having a forward plan for the day helps things run smoothly and efficiently. However, the real skill is also remembering to build in a degree of flexibility, because you never know when an emergency will arise.

Being newly qualified, each new achievement can feel like a career highlight. For example, the first time I placed an intravenous catheter, and the first puppy I resuscitated following a caesarean left me smiling all day. It’s great learning what vet nurses are capable of and the difference we can make. Once I have gained more experience, I want to achieve an advanced veterinary nursing diploma. Ultimately, I see vet nursing as a ticket to adventure and a chance to see the world.

Work-life balance

I work hard each day, but I don’t take things home with me – I don’t have to because I always do my best.

Meditation is a great tool to help me relax at the end of the day, and I enjoy yoga too. Adriene Mishler’s YouTube yoga videos are inspiring; they help me to unwind after work and to get a bit of perspective on life.

Yoga has taught me to be patient with myself when I am learning new things, as well as the importance of caring for myself so that I can effectively care for my patients.

On summer weekends I crew on a traditional sailing boat. It’s my ultimate getaway and reset after a busy week. When I’m aboard The Swan, my focus is entirely on the sea and the boat – there is no room to think about work.

Shona Jack on board a sailing boat

To others thinking about a vet nursing career, I would recommend taking time to explore your options, find your passions, meet people and investigate what interests you. Personally, I don’t believe I could have done this job straight out of school.

There is a lot of pressure at school to choose what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you know, that’s great – go out and make it happen. If not, just do something until you figure it out – there’s no rush. Although I never had a career plan, I had regularly reviewed what I wanted as I learned more about myself and what was available to me.

'Explore your options, find your passions, meet people and investigate what interests you'

If I hadn’t become a vet nurse, I would probably be working as a research assistant. Although I lost interest in doing a PhD, I still love the idea of gathering data on, for example, wild animal populations, ready for analysis and discovery.

Shona's CV

2008-2012: Honours degree in biology

2013: NVQ pharmacy dispensary assistant

2013-2016: Masters degree

2017: Trainee vet nurse

2019: Qualified as a vet nurse

2017-present: Small rural mixed practice, Shetland

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