And the winner is . . . Get to know all the AAHA 2023 Veterinary Technician of the Year finalists
Each year, AAHA recognizes the outstanding achievements of accredited, experienced veterinary technicians with the Veterinary Technician of the Year award. Visit aaha.org/vtoy for more information on the nomination process and prizes. This award is generously supported by Zoetis.
The work veterinary technicians do is truly incredible. They might run anesthesia for a cat during surgery before giving laser therapy to a senior dog and filling prescriptions, drawing blood, taking X-rays, lifting a sedated 100-pound dog onto a surgical table, meeting with clients and checking on patients—often working through meals to offer the best possible care to patients, clients, and the rest of the team.
In fact, vet techs have trained to do everything in animal hospitals except prescribe, diagnose, or perform surgery. They’re indispensable members of veterinary teams that work so hard to keep pets healthy and happy.
That’s why each year, AAHA honors four extraordinary veterinary technicians as finalists for AAHA’s Veterinary Technician of the Year. These dedicated professionals highlight the skill, dedication, tenacity and compassion that embody the best of what it means to be a vet tech.
Meet the finalists
Meagan Hembrough, LVT
Meagan Hembrough, LVT, is a giver. Growing up, she dreamed of being a veterinarian because “animals were my passion for as far as I can remember.” But as her high school graduation date approached, she realized she needed to stay home to help her mother.
She started researching online courses and was delighted to learn about the vet tech field.
“Once I realized all the things that technicians could do, I knew that is something I would want to do,” she recalled. “I just had a passion for veterinary medicine and helping animals.”
She’s been channeling that passion for the past eight years as a licensed veterinary technician at AAHA-accredited West Loop Animal Hospital in Longview, Texas. Because she enjoys emergency and critical care work so much, she sometimes works as needed at a local emergency clinic, too.
Several cases at West Loop have really stuck with her, like a French bulldog hospitalized for a week with aspiration pneumonia, and a kitten that came in lateral recumbent, hardly able to move. Despite the odds, the team worked together to help both pets recover and go home with their families.
“When they bounce back, it just makes all of your hard work worth it,” she said.
Hembrough also works on West Loop’s surgical team that offers low-cost spay and neuter surgeries to kittens and cats adopted from a local rescue organization.
When asked why she’s been loyal to her practice for eight years, she didn’t hesitate with her answer: the team.
“I couldn’t be the person I am today without the team that we have—the doctors, the staff, the management—they’re all amazing,” she said.
In fact, she’s so focused on others that she’s a bit in “shock” to be named a finalist for AAHA Veterinary Technician of the Year.
“I never thought that I’d be in this position because I’m just doing what I’m passionate about and what I love,” she said. “I just try my best for my patients, for my co-workers, and to make sure the clients are well taken care of and their pets are well taken care of. . . . I’m really honored and grateful.”
Nicole Van Sant, LVT, VTS (Emergency and Critical Care)
After 40 years in the field in one way or another, Nicole Van Sant says being a veterinary technician is basically part of her DNA.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said. “It is the work of the heart. . . Roads are not straight trajectories and plans change all the time. As my life unfolded, my career unfolded with it.”
That unfolding path led her to her current roles as nursing director and extern coordinator at Cornell University Veterinary Specialists in Stamford, Connecticut (where she’s worked since 2010), and adjunct professor at the veterinary technology program of Mercy University in New York.
She loves mentoring students, externs, and her team of 75 technicians and assistants to share her passion for helping animals and colleagues, and to help them realize their full potential as veterinary professionals.
Her exuberance is infectious.
“Remember why we’re here: What we do is so significant,” she will enthuse to mentees. “I want you to understand quality nursing care and what that looks like. You don’t move to a hospital for quality—you bring quality with you. You embrace it and you practice it in everything that you do.”
Van Sant often speaks at continuing education events, such as lecturing at the Cornell University Veterinary Specialists Annual CE Conference. She also travels to attend conferences, particularly those that delve into her specialty—critical care—including the 2023 ACVIM Conference in Philadelphia.
She’s humbled by the AAHA recognition, and grateful for the “phenomenal” people she’s met over the course of her career—even those who offered early mentorship that was more challenging than supportive. Inspired by the changes in the profession over the past four decades, she’s committed to investing time and sharing her experiences with others because she wants the next generation to thrive.
The increased focus on self-care and wellness for veterinary professionals is a welcome development to Van Sant, who believes supporting one another and “togetherness” is key to avoiding burnout.
In fact, working in the veterinary industry has been a “lifeboat” when she’s faced challenges in her personal life because it’s such compassionate work that provides a strong sense of purpose.
“I’m championing the industry every step of the way because I am in love with the industry for everything that it offers,” she said. “I like to share that with people. We make a difference.”
Meika Velazquez, CVT
Meika Velazquez, CVT, thinks veterinary technicians have “superpowers.” One superpower is the ability to morph into masters of different roles within veterinary medicine depending on what the clinic needs. Another is being able to change and adjust to patients and clients rapidly throughout the day.
“The day could go from a super happy puppy appointment to like, the other day we had a dog come in with a heart rate of 30 and crashing on the table. All of a sudden, it’s ‘Go, go, go! We’ve got to get this pet back.’ And then you’re switching to something else,” she said. “I really do feel that is a superpower, being able to change throughout your day 20 different times to become what you need to be to get through the day and provide the best patient care you can.”
Velazquez has worked for two veterinarians for the past decade and was recently promoted to practice manager at AAHA-accredited Black Canyon Veterinary Clinic in Montrose, Colorado. She loves the chance to support members of her team at any stage of their career.
“A big thing for me is just wanting to lift up all the other technicians that come in—credentialled or not credentialled,” she said. “I never want to be the person to put somebody down because they don’t know something. I want to be able to lift them up and teach them.”
One thing she loves about being a veterinary technician is the opportunity to continue learning. For instance, she became certified in abdominal ultrasound and to perform echocardiograms.
There’s on-the-job learning too, of course. Black Canyon sees dogs and cats as well as bunnies, chickens, llamas, and other species, so she can teach newer techs about different handing techniques. She also helps train staff at a local shelter about proper animal restraint, handling and caring once a week when she joins a team from Black Canyon to offer low-cost spays, neuters, exams, and treatment at the shelter.
She joins the practice in supporting other good causes, like The Shepherd’s Hand, a nonprofit that serves people experiencing homelessness and their pets, and Bosom Buddies, which provides financial assistance for mammograms and breast cancer support to women. It’s particularly meaningful since her own mother is a breast cancer survivor.
Despite her busy schedule, Velazquez has no intention of slowing down.
“I honestly love every aspect about my job, and I’ve always felt that way,” she said. “I love it and I want everybody else to realize all the things we can do.”
And the winner is . . .
Susan Herbert, RVT
Susan Herbert, RVT, has worked as a veterinary technician at AAHA-accredited Chestermere Veterinary Clinic in Alberta, Canada for five-and-a-half years, but she’s been a vet tech for over 25 years.
She’s still invigorated by the role because she’s pursued her interests along the way. Now she feels grateful to be working at an AAHA-accredited, Fear Free certified practice where the team shares her enthusiasm for helping clients prevent and work with behavior issues in pets.
Herbert is deeply concerned with the number of dogs and cats entering animal shelters due to behavior issues—a problem exacerbated by the pandemic. So she loves helping improve communication between people and their pets.
“Behavior is my passion,” she said. “It has been for the last few years, and it seems like a lot of people are getting on the bandwagon. So let’s hope that we can make some kind of a positive impact.”
In one instance of making a positive impact, a German shepherd named Gus learned to like coming to the practice thanks to three free “positive visits” (i.e., coming in for a warm welcome and dog treats, not procedures) before a vaccination appointment, which went great.
“The client thought it was fabulous,” she recalled. “He said it was like night and day from his previous practice. Hearing that from the clients makes you feel really good.”
So what’s the secret to longevity in such a rewarding but challenging profession, according to Herbert?
“We all talk about work-life balance, and that’s very important, I think. Finding something that you are still interested in (like behavior) in the field can make a huge difference,” she advised. “If you have a great team that’s behind you, and a great practice, that’s extremely helpful. But if you’re needing a change, with the market the way it is, there’s lots of room out there for it.”
About the AAHA Veterinary Technician of the Year (VTOY) award
Veterinary technicians are at the heart of any veterinary practice and deserve to be recognized and celebrated. This award recognizes the outstanding achievements of credentialed veterinary technicians and their key role in patient care. Learn more at aaha.org/vtoy. This award is possible thanks to the generous support of Zoetis.
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America. Bylines include Trends, CNN, BBC News, Inside Your Cat’s Mind, The Daily Beast, Family Dog Magazine, the TODAY show’s website, Woman’s World, HuffPost, and many other publications. She writes alongside her dogs Rio and Tux in her home office in Denver, Colorado.
Photos courtesy of the individuals featured
Meagan Hembrough photo credit Jaqueline Collier
Meika Velasquez photo credit Dr. Rachel Blankmeyer
Susan Herbert photo credit Clay Neddo
Cover photo credit: © Chainarong Prasertthai E+ via Getty Images Plus
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.