A life lesson in veterinary care

How an education program is helping young veterinary students

Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic in Worcester, Mass., is the nation’s first on-the-job veterinary clinic at a high school developed in collaboration with a veterinary school.

It allows students in the veterinary assisting program at the Worcester Technical High School gain hands-on experience while working toward a traditional diploma and an approved veterinary assistant certificate from the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA). Not only that, but the high schoolers’ mentors are fourth-year students from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. The animals seen at this unique clinic belong to pet caretakers who reside in the local community, which is economically depressed. In order to receive care, caretakers must demonstrate need.

“This program works on so many layers,” says Greg Wolfus, DVM, MS, clinical assistant professor at Cummings and director of Tufts at Tech.

Fourth-year veterinary Tufts student, Tyler Maddox, agrees. “You never know what’s going to walk through the door,” she says. “We evaluate and make a tentative diagnosis. It’s not like real life—it is real life. I took a communications course, but this feels real because it is real.”

She continues, “One thing I’ve learned that can’t be replicated in a classroom is the palpable emotion of the human-animal bond. It doesn’t matter that some of these clients are surviving on food stamps or in subsidized housing—they care about their pets no less than anyone else.”

Learning more than a thing or two

Dr. Wolfus says he believes life lessons are as important as actually implementing what veterinary students have learned in classrooms about diagnostics and techniques.

In just a few weeks’ time, Maddox and her classmates diagnosed and followed up on surgery for everything from pyometra to entropion to all sorts of dental procedures to removing a mass from a cat’s face to many low-cost spay/neuters. And euthanasia also is a reality in the clinic.

Pam Houde, CVT, is there to assist DVM students and to teach blood draws, induction, positioning for radiographs, and so much more, including asking the right questions to be efficient in a real clinical setting. Houde has been a part of Tufts at Tech for more than four years.

“It’s humbling,” she says. “Yes, it’s a learning experience for the veterinary and high school students, but I think we all learn. We all come together for one purpose.” And that’s one of the lessons the high school students learn. Pets themselves teach selfless behavior.

“I’ve learned about caring for others who need help,” says Juliette Tarnuzzer, who is a 16-year old junior at Worcester Technical High School. “I always knew I wanted to work with animals, but was kind of squeamish around blood. Now, I know I can handle it.”

High school students take client histories, assist the veterinary students to handle patients, help to prep animals for surgery, learn about reading lab reports, help to clean, and to take future appointments.

Worcester Technical High School offers other “real-life” programs, including carpentry, automobile technology, web development, culinary arts, and cosmetology. An allied health program to learn to become a certified nursing assistant is another offering.

The veterinary assisting program students take the NAVTA test for becoming an approved veterinary assistant. About 99 percent of the program’s graduates have passed since the test became part of the program in 2010. It’s unclear how many of the high school graduates actually land jobs in the veterinary field only because it’s a challenge to track so many people postgraduation. But certainly many grads are now working in veterinary medicine.

“It’s hard to comprehend what walking in the shoes of some of these high school students is like,” Wolfus says. “My goal isn’t to make them all veterinarians, or even veterinary professionals. My goal is, yes, to expose them to veterinary medicine. But mostly to use the lessons they’ve learned here in real life, and to be productive and responsible contributors to society as adults.”

As for the veterinary students? “There’s nothing like this,” Wolfus says. “They are mentors themselves (to the high school students), and learn so many skills that just don’t happen in a classroom. The greatest challenge is telling an older person who has difficultly using her hands how to give an oral medication or finding a way to communicate with a client where English is a second language.”

Preparing for the future

Indeed, it seems these high school students are having fun while learning, a goal not always achieved in an educational setting. This is likely because the students are enjoying working with animals and relate to the veterinary students who aren’t all that much older.

Maddox says knowing she is making a difference is the most important lessons she’s learned. “The clients may not be able to afford every possible diagnostic test or treatment, but we make what we can affordable. And we do what we can. And people are so appreciative. This makes me feel so positive about our profession.”

President Barrack Obama spoke at Worcester Tech’s graduation in 2014, saying he had “challenged high schools all across the country to do what you’re doing here—better prepare students for the demands of the global economy.”

Some would try and argue, “If you cannot afford veterinary care, you should not have a pet.” Wolfus replies that Tufts at Tech is a model proving that notion wrong. “I’ve never been so proud to be associated with anything in my life,” he says. Indeed, Tufts at Tech is a life changer and lifesaver.

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. Visit his website at stevedale.tv. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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