Erika Smith works as a senior veterinary nurse at an after-hours emergency practice in Te Awamutu. However, she wasn’t always certain she would end up vet nursing. As a little girl, she’d dreamed of being a vet, but talked herself out of it, believing she “wasn’t smart enough”.

Erika went on to complete a Bachelor of Science from the University of Auckland; however, like many new grads she struggled to find a job. She was adamant she didn’t want to sit in a lab behind a microscope. She looked towards a potential career in zookeeping and applied for a job at Auckland Zoo but didn’t get an interview, so she began researching what qualifications were needed to become a zookeeper. While searching for the Captive Wild Animal Management Certificate in Unitec’s prospectus, she stumbled across the Diploma in Veterinary Nursing.

“As soon as I saw that, a lightbulb went on and I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” says Erika.

“I have always had an affinity with animals and the thought of looking after them in a nursing capacity really resonated with me.”

She graduated in 2010.

“When I was studying you could do a certificate in veterinary nursing which is a one-year course or a diploma in veterinary nursing, which is two years. Now they have also introduced a degree as a veterinary technician, which is only offered in Palmerston North, and are phasing out the certificate. If you do one year of study now, you become a veterinary nurse assistant.”

Now that she has a front-row seat to what the vet does, she says she is pleased she took the vet nursing path.

“I enjoy nursing much more as we get to be so much more hands-on with the animals’ actual care than the vet is at times. Just like in human medicine.”

There’s a lot involved in the work of a vet nurse.

Taking appointments, greeting owners and pets, admitting and discharging patients, triaging all incoming animals, carrying out any diagnostics as advised by the vet such as blood/urine collecting and testing, taking radiographs, eye staining and faecal testing are all in a day’s work for Erika.

“Nurses are responsible for all inpatient clinical exams, IV catheter placement and fluid therapy, administering medications, monitoring blood transfusions. We also assist the vet in surgery and monitor our patients under anaesthetic. Then of course we have to keep the clinic clean, sterilise surgical packs and do mountains of washing.”

Erika also enjoys teaching student nurses and worked as a veterinary nurse tutor for two years.

“We have lots of students coming through our clinic and I love seeing their excitement when they get to place a catheter or clip up a wound for the first time.”

Erika loves that she never knows what each shift will bring and that she is able to put to use all the skills she learned in her diploma.

“I love that we are available when all other clinics are closed. We are an amazing, experienced team and because we are an after-hours emergency practice, we have a lot of cutting- edge equipment at the clinic to do what needs to be done at 3am!”

“The thing I love most about my job is animals who came into the clinic in a critical state like a metaldehyde [slug bait] toxicity, walking out with their owners in the morning, wagging their tails!”

The downside is, of course, euthanasia, particularly when such decisions are based on finances.

Erika begins work this year on an emergency and critical care specialty through an American provider. There is currently only one specialty nurse in New Zealand at Massey University who specialises in anaesthetics, so she is excited at the prospect of upskilling.

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