It takes heart to provide professional care for an animal, a loving child’s heart.
So it has been for “Mama” Jen Blackham and Dawn Barer, two longtime Walla Walla area veterinary technicians who discovered what they wanted to do for life when they were young.
“I’ve just always loved animals,” said Blackham, a vet tech at Associated Veterinary Medical Center. “I used to hang out with my aunt in Northern Idaho. I used to work on their farm. They had horses and I just loved them. I guess it’s genetic.”
For Barer, who works at the Animal Clinic of Walla Walla, there’s really been no other profession for her.
“When I was a little child, my friend and I used to rescue animals,” she said. “We had our own little clinic in the alley on Balm between two garages. We tried to save squirrels the cat had gotten. We had our own little cemetery back there if they didn’t make it. I’ve always had animals. It’s amazing the powers of the universe just lead me here.”
Vet techs are an integral part of any veterinarian’s office. They do most everything except diagnosis, surgery, outlining treatment plans and prescribing drugs for ailing animals.
“They are the nurses of the animal world,” said Dr. Sara Campbell, a veterinarian at Associated. “The doctor comes up with a plan and the nurse implements it. They are invaluable.
“... From a business point of view the techs allow me to do a lot more diagnosing. I can’t imagine the practice without them,” she said. “They don’t get as much glory as they should. I couldn’t do what I do without them.”
Not only does it take heart to be a vet tech, there is a lot of education and training put into their careers.
Blackham, for example, received a bachelor’s degree in animal science at Utah State University, Logan, and an associate of science in veterinary technology from Colorado Mountain College, Spring Valley. And to practice in Washington state a vet tech take must have taken an intense two-year course of study and pass rigourous exams to become licensed.
Techs also have to stay up-to-date with procedures and equipment, said Barer. “It’s always new and changing.”
Sue Wedam, a doctor of veterinary medicine and director of the Veterinary Technology Program at Yakima Valley Community College, said you find vet techs wherever you find veterinarians.
“The demand for vet techs has remained high,” she said, adding that the state Employment Security Department considers the job among “in-demand” professions.
“Is it important? Absolutely!,” Wedam said. “... Our graduates are highly sought and do extremely well on the national board exams for licensure. We have many technicians working at WSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital helping train veterinarians.”
The program in Yakima started in 1997 and graduated its first class in 1999. Other programs in the state are at Pierce College in Puyallup and Lakewood, Bellingham Technical College, and two private programs with PIMA Medical Institute in Seattle and Renton.
Dr. Bret Smith, veterinarian at Animal Clinic of Walla Walla agreed the role of the tech is vital. Examples of things they do include dental work, as long as there’s no incision, filling prescriptions, giving instructions to clients, inducing anesthesia and monitoring patients.
He also agrees there is a shortage of vet techs, especially at clinics that treat large animals.
“It’s difficult to find technicians in a rural area,” he said.
Blackham, who has been a vet tech at Associated Veterinary Medical Center for 12 years, loves her job but at times it can be stressful because of what’s at stake.
“You’re taking care of people’s little furry kids,” she said. She is seeing patients she’s known since their first puppy shots. Now they are elderly and she’s saying goodbye to them.
“We have had this relationship, we’ve come full circle,” Blackham said.
Barer said that what is most fun for her is watching the interaction between the clients and their pets, “and becoming part of their families.” Like Blackham, she has seen animals grow, learn, get sick and get well again.
And after a lifetime together the goodbyes come hard, for where there has been great joy there is also sorrow.
“Animals do so much for us,” she said.