Vet Teams IRL: Natalie Pedraja, LVT
Being a relief tech and anesthesia consultant, I travel a lot. Like just got platinum status on American Airlines a lot. During my travels, I like to buy a piece of local handmade pottery, one of my favorites being a piece I picked up while at a conference in South Dakota. Some folks have magnets or keychains, I have local pottery. This love for clay that has been interpreted by someone else’s imagination led me to licensed veterinary technician Natalie Pedraja, LVT.
A compassionate veterinary technician, avid hiker, mental health advocate, and amateur clay artist, Natalie is a multifaceted talent who is making a positive impact all around her. Here we talk to Natalie about the realities of vet med, why it’s ok to step away if you need to, and why mentors can be lifesavers.
Tasha McNerney: How long have you been working in veterinary medicine? What drew you to this field?
Natalie Pedraja: I started working in veterinary medicine in 2008, when I began shadowing at our dog's vet clinic back in Glen Allen, Virginia. I've been active in the field since then, starting as an assistant and now as a licensed veterinary technician, for a total of 15 years!
One of my older sisters wanted to be a veterinarian and I decided that I wanted to do the same. I received endless support from the doctors at this clinic and the positive feedback drove me to pour my heart and soul into the profession from a young age. I loved science and when we adopted our dog, Summer, in 2009, I began learning about positive reinforcement (clicker) training and added that to my back pocket. Animals just fascinated me!
TMc: What is your favorite aspect of veterinary medicine right now?
NP: I'm currently taking a hiatus from working in veterinary medicine while I explore an outside career in data analysis that I hope to mesh with my love of veterinary medicine. I have always loved collecting data within the clinics, always in the pursuit of answers to questions; and there are LOTS of questions in veterinary medicine that haven't even been asked yet, much less explored in a validated and informative way. That is what I am enjoying right now. But if you asked me while in a clinic, you're likely to find me glued to any animal that requires intensive observation and intuitive care. These cases are what drives me forward.
TMc: You’re so right; there are so many things, even skills like data analysis, that can help to make you an even better asset to your clinic. I know you are all about clinics that fully utilize their tech team. Why do you think this is important for career satisfaction?
NP: Credentialed technicians are professionals and must be recognized as such! I spent so much of my career as a veterinary assistant in one of the strictest states when it comes to title protection, licensing requirements, and scope of practice. I've only been licensed since 2017 and when I was an assistant, I was an undergraduate biology major at Virginia Commonwealth University. It was during this time I realized that being an LVT would be a far better career path to get the hands-on experience that I craved. I loved being an assistant, but I knew that once I reached the pinnacle of that level of training, I had to push myself to the next tier: veterinary technology.
When I discovered that a veterinary technician specialist was a thing, I was immediately determined to push myself to learn and gain the skills necessary for a VTS in emergency and critical care (my bread and butter). I have tried various hospital types and settings: general practice, emergency and specialty hospitals, academia, and research. I stress this to all employers: Utilize me/your credentialed technicians to the fullest and we can accomplish so much more for our patients and the practice! I believe that when we are stymied, we face discontent, apathy, and eventual burnout, like a hamster on a wheel.
TMc: You know I have a strange love of handmade pottery, so when you put a few of your pieces up for sale on social media, I jumped at the chance to own a set of small blue bowls. It’s so fascinating to me when vet med folks who are very analytical have a hobby that is so amazingly creative. How does practicing pottery help you balance your life in vet med?
NP: So, I began an intensive outpatient dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) program in May of 2022. My mental health was bad. My brain was fried. I was dissociating during shifts, having intense feelings of self-harm, and having panic attacks daily.
A huge part of DBT is learning how to manage and cope with stressors in healthy ways. One of my big stressors was feeling an overarching sense that I MUST be needed in some way or another to be of value. Well, since I couldn't work effectively and held an impending sense of doom over potentially messing up and harming a patient, I had to refocus that energy somehow. Thus, pottery.
I destroyed so many pieces on that wheel during the first weeks of practicing; more than I ever had in the months I spent in the studio. I allowed myself the opportunity to produce nothing. I would go through a 25-pound bag of clay and have nothing to show for it except clay splattered across my living room walls, arms, face, hair, and clothes. You get the picture. Sometimes, I'd look at a piece on the wheel, smash it down, scrape it off, and throw it again.
I soon found that my ability to center a piece of clay on the wheel was a helpful way of recognizing when I was off-center. I grew to learn how to transform pieces that may not have any kind of use at all other than to help me reach this meditative state. There is this moment in pottery where if you tap into yourself, you can sense every clay particle lining up in unison and sometimes I just sit there and feel the centered clay spinning between my hands. It's grounding, it's creative, and the best part is clay can be used and reused over and repeatedly. So, it gives me hundreds of chances to turn a ball of clay into whatever it's meant to be when it's meant to be. It's forgiving and helped me learn to forgive myself for not being perfect all the time. An imperfect bowl is still useful and beautiful.
TMc: What advice would you give technicians that are just starting and want to make this a lifelong career?
NP: I would encourage all new techs to find a mentor and a therapist. I don't say this lightly. I believe the best way forward for this profession is to stop the toxic narrative that has circulated for too long. Too many times I have heard people proclaim they chose this profession because they hate people and love animals. The reality of it is this: without people, we have no patients. Without colleagues, we have no profession. Learning interpersonal skills is essential and needs to be emphasized on a larger basis. Don't let egos get in the way of patient care. I know that those of you who are fresh out of school are just beyond thrilled for the path you have chosen, and you should be! Embrace the chaos that comes from working in this field but do so after meeting your own needs. Compassion is a two-way street; grant yourself the compassion you give to every four-legged, winged, scaled, or hooved creature that needs you.
AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing
Tasha McNerney BS, CVT, CVPP, VTS (Anesthesia and Analgesia) is a certified veterinary technician from Glenside, Pennsylvania. She is also a certified veterinary pain practitioner and works closely with the IVAPM to educate the public about animal pain awareness. McNerney has authored numerous articles on anesthesia and analgesia topics for veterinary professionals and pet owners.
Photos courtesy of Natalie Pedraja
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.