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A day in the life of a veterinary technician

Recently, I spent the day shadowing a credentialed veterinary technician in honor of National Veterinary Technician Week—a simple assignment that turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.

I got in touch with AAHA-accredited Riverview Animal Hospital in Durango, Colorado. My dog, Rio, has been a patient there since he was a puppy, and they’ve helped us through a variety of scares, from dog bites and nose mites to a particularly unpleasant case of giardia.

Riverview arranged for me to shadow Jessica Krafthefer, CVT, who had just celebrated her eight-year anniversary of working at the practice as a veterinary technician since graduating from the Bel-Rea Institute of Animal Technology in Denver.

7:10 a.m. I pull into the parking lot at Riverview Animal Hospital and Krafthefer waves to me from the front lawn while she waits for an overnight patient—an elderly standard poodle—to relieve herself.

“This is Trixie,” she says by way of introduction. “She has liver failure, but the doctors are treating her with everything they have.”

I follow Krafthefer and Trixie into the back room of the hospital. Trixie goes into a big kennel with a little stuffed toy before we join the entire staff up front for morning rounds—a briefing of the surgeries and major events planned for that day.

A golden retriever named Henry has bone cancer and needs to have a front leg amputated. Krafthefer is assigned to monitor anesthesia during his surgery. Credentialed veterinary technicians are trained to do everything in a veterinary hospital except prescribe, diagnose, or perform surgery, so they can be trusted with an enormous amount of responsibility.

“My job is to get as prepped as I can for my surgery,” she says. “The patients’ safety and comfort are two of our biggest goals here.”

We don masks, hair nets, and booties so she can start prepping the surgical suite. She turns on machines, saying things like, “This measures their oxygenation levels,” and calculates fluid rates for the IVs and medicinal dosages.

Soon, there’s activity in the back room and she’s needed. A little terrier mix needs a blood draw, so Krafthefer shaves a portion of his leg, checks his blood pressure, and coos in baby talk, “You’ve got to be brave.” She takes a blood sample, then labels the vial before clipping his nails as a courtesy to the owner. She’s constantly in motion—carrying sedated dogs to surgical tables, preparing syringes, even scratching a veterinarian’s eyebrow for her while she surgically seals a cat’s tooth.

“We wear a lot of hats,” Krafthefer says.

10:05 a.m. In the surgical suite, the amputation surgery is underway. Krafthefer anticipates the surgeon’s needs, adjusting the overhead light to help visibility or handing her instruments while monitoring the dog’s vitals. She doesn’t want to rely solely on the machines, so she performs manual calculations to make sure Henry’s heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure are steady. She even anticipates my needs and brings in a chair in case I faint.

10:17 a.m. I realize the chair won’t do it and decide to leave the surgical suite to the professionals.

1:30 p.m. Henry’s amputation surgery is a success. The surgeon wraps bandages around the dog’s torso while Krafthefer and a veterinary intern lift him. On another table, a veterinarian and technician are frantically working to stabilize a dog badly injured in a fight. Another veterinarian announces, “We’ll do afternoon rounds back here so you can all keep working,” and updates staff on the cases. Afterward, Krafthefer finally takes a break, telling me it’s not uncommon to have to—or want to—work through lunch.

3:50 p.m. Krafthefer has been a whirling dervish, taking X-rays (one shows a dog has managed to eat a large rock), cleaning wounds, administering anesthetics and checking on patients, taking time to stroke their noses even if unconscious. I follow her into an exam room to meet with an older woman who has been watching her son’s dog. Little Teddy has been vomiting and she’s concerned. Krafthefer sits next to her and asks questions like, “What are his stools like? Which day did he eat the chicken broth? Is he on any medications?” It’s the longest I’ve seen her sit—and it’s because she’s compassionate and doesn’t want the woman to feel rushed.

But as soon as she leaves the room, she speeds up again. She stands at a hallway computer, entering notes about the case, then heads into the back room to brief the veterinarian while grabbing a rectal thermometer for someone who asks for it.

After the veterinarian diagnoses gastroenteritis—a sort of stomach upset—Krafthefer is entrusted with Teddy’s treatment and discharge. She administers his medications, fills his prescriptions, and carries him to the front desk to the relieved woman, giving instructions on home care.

5:10 p.m. Krafthefer prepares a scope with a camera for a veterinarian who wants a closer look at the interior of a dog’s stomach.

“Jess, I may need you to drive while I steer,” he tells her. She calmly feeds the scope and its long cable into the dog’s throat while the veterinarian checks the monitor to know where to direct the camera.

It turns out the dog needs surgery to remove an obstruction. Some employees make quick calls home to say they’ll be working late and want to say goodnight to their young children. Krafthefer is disappointed that she’ll miss seeing her 4-year-old daughter, but manages to maintain a chipper attitude as she tends to the dogs and cats who will be staying overnight at the hospital. She tells me the best part of her job is helping animals.

Unsurprisingly, the worst part is euthanasia. Even though she knows it can be a final gift to a suffering animal, her heart breaks to see owners having to make tough decisions.

“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve known some patients since they were puppies,” she says. “When you’ve been a part of an animal’s life for so long, it makes it harder.”

6:36 p.m. Krafthefer tells me she has to go through all the charges for the day and enter them into the computer records, so I should go home. I’m weary just from watching her work all day, which I tell her, marveling at how challenging her job is. But she says it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

“It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, when I go home exhausted, I still want to come back,” she says. “Look at the amazing team I work with! You go home and think, ‘Look what I accomplished today.’ I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Award-winning freelance journalist Jen Reeder was completely floored by the passion, knowledge, and dedication of Jessica Krafthefer, CVT, and the team at AAHA-accredited Riverview Animal Hospital. She is grateful to know her beloved Lab mix, Rio, is in such good hands.

Photos courtesy of Jen Reeder

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