Working as an emergency and critical care specialist nurse

Tom Smith

Vet nurse training

I left school knowing I wanted to become a veterinary nurse (VN). As clichéd as it may sound, my inspiration to work with animals came from watching ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ – who knew a TV series would inspire so many of us to work in our industry?

Over the next three years I studied animal care at Norton Radstock College and was then offered a position at Garston Veterinary Group as a student VN in 1998.

The practice had an in-house waiting list for VN training. Being impatient, I enrolled on a pre-veterinary nursing course at a local training school, the Vetlink School of Veterinary Nursing.

When I passed with credit, the practice moved me to the top of the waiting list and I gained my VN qualification in 2004.

Working in permanent and locum jobs over the next few years allowed me to gain experience, friends and build memories. However, practice politics, poor pay, poor professional recognition and unsociable working hours led to a feeling of disenchantment.

"Practice politics, poor pay, poor professional recognition and unsociable working hours led to a feeling of disenchantment"

I retrained as a hairdresser like my sister. It was fabulous, I got to be creative, artistic and talk to the clients all day. Even better, I got to wear some really nice clothes to work.

Eventually though, I missed nursing. I applied for a part-time job in a local practice where many of the staff were old friends from previous practices I’d worked at. It was just the boost I needed. In fact, it didn’t feel like work, it was more like socialising with friends and helping animals. What more could anyone want?

After a while, I craved for more knowledge and responsibility and, in August 2011, I joined the small animal referral hospital within Langford Vets at Bristol university as a referral nurse.

This is where I found my passion for veterinary emergency and critical care (ECC). I took up a post as a full-time intensive care nurse and I’m still there today.

Working in Emergency & Critical Care

I enjoy every aspect of ECC, from triage to trauma and transfusion medicine to managing ventilated patients. I am lucky to have a role that allows me to push myself and my clinical skills over and above what I ever imagined I could do.

Part of my job involves teaching and lecturing undergraduate vet students and vet nursing degree students. Educating them about what it is to be a RVN and the skills we have means a great deal to me.

As a full time ECC/intensive care nurse, I wanted to advance my clinical knowledge and abilities. Having discussed my options with my senior nurse and clinical lead, they suggested that I should enrol on the Vets Now veterinary nursing certificate in emergency and critical care.

Having achieved this — my first ECC qualification — I went on to become board certified through the Academy of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Technicians (AVECCT), which means I am a veterinary technician specialist (VTS) in ECC. There are only 12 similarly qualified RVNs in the UK.

I sat the examination in Nashville, Tennessee – one of 70 candidates – and, of those, 35 passed. It was amazingly tough, but at the same time I enjoyed using the knowledge I had accumulated in preparing for it. I’m not sure if that makes me a little bit strange? It has certainly been the highlight of my career to date.

As a result of this achievement, I applied to join the AVECCT mentor and credentials committees and I enjoy advising other RVNs who are considering working towards VTS certification.

"I enjoy every aspect of ECC, from triage to trauma and transfusion medicine to managing ventilated patients"

The RCVS doesn’t currently recognise specialist veterinary nurse training in the UK, or those who have completed board certification. I hope this will soon change.

I have also joined the BSAVA’s congress committee to help the association add new subject material and speakers to its scientific programme.

I know I’m lucky to work with specialist clinicians, residents and interns who support me, and whom I support using my advanced clinical knowledge and ability.

There have been two people who have given me great inspiration and support: vet Sophie Adamantos and RVN Kerry Hall.

Sophie is our lead ECC/ intensive care clinician at Langford and her knowledge is impressive. She was exceptionally supportive in helping me gain the certification I have.

Kerry was my mentor for my certification, and spent a lot of her own time giving me advice and helping me study. Postcertification, we still continue to share our knowledge and experiences on a regular basis.

Work-life balance

The stimulation and reward of the job I do means it doesn’t often feel like work. Having said that, I am happy to add a few days’s holiday to a conference abroad when I can.

Bella and Cora are my cheeky miniature dachshunds – they are my pride and joy and I enjoy our country walks together. And my partner, Mark, keeps me busy by organising day trips and holidays and we even compete against each other in regular ‘bake offs’.

Excel in your chosen field

I would urge all RVNs, whatever their interest, to choose the field they want to excel in and to go for it! The feeling when you achieve something you’ve worked hard for is amazing.

Whatever our nursing roles, we all specialise in care and this is something I tell the students who come through the hospital on clinical rotations.

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