Developing a career as a veterinary nurse

John Redbond vet nurse
Like many young people I grew up wanting to be a vet, working with the things I loved the most as a small child: animals. Even in my early teens, however, I was aware of both the difficulty academically and the length of time it took to achieve that goal, having doubts about my desire to go to university for so long. A one-week placement doing work experience at a local practice was the fork in the road for me: I saw the work of the veterinary nurse for the first time and I preferred that role. During the week, I learnt about a job driven more by passion and care than qualification and academia. The VNs showed me the path they took to qualification; it was both what I wanted to do and how I wanted to learn – on the job.

Training path to becoming a vet nurse

I completed the BTEC national diploma in animal care at Sparsholt College of Agriculture, which gave me a foundation of knowledge in the field to show potential employers I was serious about working with animals. During the course I learnt a lot about various aspects of animal care, while also getting further work experience to add to my CV. But it wouldn't be until I began working as a trainee veterinary nurse (TVN) that I fully realised the benefit of the course.

At the age of 19 I achieved the diploma and began applying to as many surgeries as I could to ask if they had any vacancies for a TVN, and Castle Vets in Reading offered me an interview. I never expected the veterinary nursing qualification to be easy, which it certainly wasn't, but the hardest challenge for me was learning about the day-to-day running of a veterinary practice. This was when the information I had learned on the course became invaluable.

Castle Vets has always been good at making sure that its students get the training and support time with a clinical coach, and mine was vital in helping me through what was then the portfolio, logging cases to ensure I covered all the modules I needed to master.

"The hardest challenge for me was learning about the day-to-day running of a veterinary practice"

I was the last of the students to study on block-release with Berkshire College of Agriculture, leaving the practice for three months before sitting my exams at the end of each block. I passed my written exams and all but one of four practical tests – the ‘lab’. I had to wait six months to sit that single, practical 12-minute test again, so I used the time to learn all I could about laboratory work.

Interest and knowledge in lab work

Having qualified I took some time to settle into my role as a qualified VN, but it wasn't long before I took charge of the practice's laboratory. The time spent revising had given me an interest and knowledge of laboratory work, which I used to look at improving the practice apparatus.

The surgery had recently undergone a major refit, with many new facilities, one of which was a single-purpose laboratory room. While the space was excellent, the machines were poorly maintained and serviced, with no regular quality controls. I introduced a regular maintenance regime with controls to ensure the validity of results, which helped the vets trust the tests they were performing, but, over time, it became clear the machines were unreliable and untrustworthy. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to change all of the laboratory equipment, switching to a user-friendly and reliable dry chemistry set up, a haematology analyser and a new microscope with a wireless camera. Through CPD courses and practice I have worked to improve my own understanding of the lab and microscopy, to try to maximise the potential of our in-house lab. We are now paperless as well, with test requests and results completed electronically and linked with the patient's record. It is still an area of real interest to me, and recently I had an article published on setting up a practice lab.

"Through CPD courses and practice I have worked to improve my own understanding of the lab and microscopy, to try to maximise the potential of our in-house lab"

It was this interest that also led to me attend a CPD course on dermatology. Initially I wanted to increase my skill set, but soon afterwards I was invited to join a team of nurses across the country, being funded by Novartis Animal Health to take part in a programme encouraging nurse dermatology clinics. It was a great experience, and one that resulted in me seeing the potential for a nurse to help in practice with these long, difficult cases. I worked on improving my ability at performing the tests, being very fortunate to work with David Terry, one of the practice owners who has experience in the field. As my employer, he encouraged me to establish dermatology clinics once a week in the practice. They have been successful, and now I carry out regular workups following referral from the vets within the surgery, offering me a great opportunity to specialise within my profession. I have developed an interest in this area too and I am soon to have an article published on setting up dermatology clinics.

Clinical coach

During my time at Castle Vets I have also become a clinical coach. Knowing how important my coach was to me, it is a great privilege to be able to support a student through their training. My first student was a male nurse like me; we are a rare breed and it was wonderful to see him progress through the course. I now have another student and enjoy the way this role challenges my understanding of the profession, and it is something I would encourage other qualified nurses to undertake.

A fundamental understanding of computers has also seen me, quite by accident, become the practice's information technology support. Although this was never something I intended (or actively resisted), it has allowed me to develop my understanding of computer technology, while helping the surgery achieve its potential. Recently the practice underwent the huge task of changing its practice management software and hardware, which I was heavily involved in. It was an experience – providing stress, excitement and satisfaction – as well as a fantastic chance for the surgery to pull together for a common goal. I really enjoyed it.

Rota responsibility  

Several years ago I took on responsibility for the rota within the surgery with the head nurse, Lynne Joyes. Getting rotas right is the key to having an effective and happy working team, and the challenge to improve ours was more enjoyable than I thought it would be. We initially changed from a paper system to one across the practice computer network, before losing it when we changed management systems. However, keen to move forward rather than back, we contacted a company providing rotas for the NHS, and this has allowed us to make our rota cloud-based so staff can check it using their computers or smartphones, and even receive text updates on changes.

"The challenge of being a line manager is unlike any other, carrying much more responsibility, but with potential to move things forward"

Working with Lynne on the rota was one of the factors that led to my appointment as deputy head nurse, before taking over as head nurse while she was on maternity leave. The challenge of being a line manager is unlike any other, carrying much more responsibility, but with potential to move things forward. Leadership is liquid, never holding one shape and with different personalities and tasks around every corner, but I am very fortunate to have a great team of nurses at the practice and, as such, I enjoy my role. Lynne is now back at work and we share a load that is too heavy for one person, working together on everything from recruitment to annual leave, to our summer fete.

I feel proud to have worked at Castle Vets for all 14 years of my career so far. It is a great practice, which has been very good to me and I hope I have returned the favour. My role now doesn't allow for as much nursing as it once did, but I still love getting the chance to do the work I admired as a quiet 15-year-old work experience student.

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