When vet techs attack

February 8, 2018
Naomi Strollo, RVT

Dealing with a pack mentality is not what I signed up for when I entered the veterinary technology profession.

Photo: Shutterstock.comWhen I added a new puppy into the home of two already established dogs, I hoped she would fit right in. She was laid-back and merely followed the older dogs around. She never challenged them and often attempted to play with both, even though they never gave her the time of day. One left the room when she entered. And the lead dog growled at her as she passed. The lonely puppy just wanted to play and make friends.

For me, starting a new clinic as a veterinary technician was much like being a new puppy in an established pack. In my case, just like the new puppy, I didn't want to fight or take down any lead dogs. I just wanted to do my job and get along with my coworkers. I valued their knowledge, and I didn't want to challenge their position in the pack. And yet acceptance into the pack was nearly impossible.

Sometimes I wish the people in the veterinary field didn't act so much like the species we treat.

Trial by fire

My short training period consisted of an older tech telling me how she couldn't wait to get out of this field-and out of our clinic especially. She put down my past places of employment and told me that with my years of experience, I'd be miserable here.

I was clearly on my own, in every way. In a clinic of more than 100 employees, my team frequently found hiding places when I needed help. I'd start my shift and people would scatter as if I had a contagious disease. Not knowing what was expected of me, I'd clean or stock to stay busy.

When doctors needed help, I jumped in. And when we noticed the lack of help around, they couldn't understand where the rest of the team had gone. Whenever I had to take radiographs, the doctors helped or they found kennel staff members to assist, which almost always became a crash course in reminding the kennel team how our machines work.  

Fortunately, I've had many years of experience in an emergency clinic. When an aggressive dog needed a muzzle and blood draw, I knew how to use my body as a shield, holding the vein with one hand, drawing blood with the other. I found myself constantly trying to stay positive and praised myself for being so clever. But clever could only get me so far in my day-to-day routine.

At some point management learned I was on the receiving end of the cold shoulder, and they still did nothing. I would frequently walk in to find the whole team sitting and eating. They would immediately start barking orders at me.

Once I was told to do a cesarean section on a 180-pound Saint Bernard. I read the chart, got the needed anesthetic injections and prepped the surgical suite. All the while, no one moved. After getting the dog out of the run, I looked around to see if someone would help me place a catheter, but they'd all vanished.

I later found out that this dog was very aggressive and lunged at people, but everyone failed to let me know, and nothing was noted on the chart. As a kennel assistant walked by, I asked her to find one of the techs to help me move this large dog into surgery. A few minutes later they sent me a tech with mobility issues.

After intubation, we had to move the dog onto the gurney and into the surgery suite. As we lifted, she fell. I tried in vain to throw myself under her body to soften the blow. The staff must have been watching the whole thing, because at that exact moment, one of the techs came running to get the rest of the dog on the gurney. She helped me wheel her into surgery and prep, wrapped in an awkward silence.

As the doctor was finishing the surgery, he asked for various injections. He explained that once the puppies were out, we give an injection of oxytocin, carprofen, penicillin G and buprenorphine. We were supposed to always have them drawn up ahead of time, ready to administer at a moment's notice. This was the first time I'd ever heard of this protocol. Thankfully, he was understanding, and he told me where I could find the dosages.

Looking back, I'd never done surgery in this practice before. I'd never worked with their machines or been educated on their protocols. Think about how dangerous it is to send someone not properly trained into surgery alone. They put the patient-and the practice-at risk.

The hazing continues

As the weeks went on, this behavior from the technician pack continued. Assistants finally became courageous enough to talk to me and offer help. Technicians, on the other hand, told me to go walk dogs. I did, only to later find out we had kennel staff to walk dogs. When surgeries were done, it was my job to clean up after the techs.

If I practiced a method I'd learned at another practice, I was sternly told, "You need to do it our way." But no one would show me their way. When I asked questions they'd either walk away or pretend they didn't hear me and start talking to someone else.

I left my job in tears every day. All I wanted was to be a part of a profession that I love, in a job that I love. I wanted to quit, but I felt that was what they wanted. They don't even talk to me, I'd think, so why would they want me gone?

They constantly complained that we needed more technicians, but if that was how new hires were treated, why would anyone want to work here? When the manager asked how I liked the practice, I was honest. "I don't think I'm wanted here," I told her. She didn't seem shocked. I told her how I was treated. She said, "It's just a little new person hazing." How was endangering the staff and patients acceptable because I was new?

When I asked to go on rounds, I was told to just read the charts. They took down caution stickers when I arrived to see if I could "properly identify an aggressive dog.” If I didn't get bitten and used a muzzle, I “passed” and the sticker would go back up.

No longer a lone wolf

It's been nine months since I started. A handful of new people have joined the practice after me. Knowing what it's like to be new here, I've stayed by their side to teach and protect them. Even so, they've had a taste of some of the same antics I've experienced.

The small group of us go out of our way to help everyone. I don't recommend this place to others, because the negative, mean-spirited attitude is still active. The few of us are able to survive it because of our ability to be positive and work as a team with each other and our doctors. We have much fewer technicians on our shift, but we work harder and get along.

It's a shame that management allows this atmosphere to exist. They clearly see the difference between the shifts. Even the toxic, dark air dissipates when the vet tech pack walks out the door, and a calm, clear air emerges.

I love my career, and I know staying positive will kill off the rotten attitudes. And I'm grateful for the new technicians who share a positive attitude. Maybe I'm just a new puppy who won't fit in with the big dogs, but I've found a pack of my own, and we're fighting back against the pack mentality.

Naomi Strollo, RVT, is Fear Free certified and has been working in the veterinary field for over 24 years. She currently practices emergency medicine, freelance writing, and has a special interest in training, which enables her Akita, pitt bull and Shiba Inu to all reside happily together.