Round Two: A hearty ‘thank you’ to vet techs everywhere

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Every time I sit down to write this column, two thoughts immediately enter my mind:

  1. Even after nearly 40 years in journalism, I still can’t believe they pay me to do this.
  2. How lucky I am to be doing this.

Because I’ve had jobs where I wasn’t quite so fortunate. And with National Veterinary Technician Week getting underway Oct. 15, I’m reminded even more (not that I need much of a reminder) how lucky I am that this is what I do for a living.

In the summer following my first year at the University of Akron, I worked as a landscaper at the old Geauga Lake amusement park in Aurora. Yes, I was a lean-and-mean 19-year-old college kid, but that didn’t seem to make much difference working in the relentless heat and humidity 9½ hours a day, six days a week for 10 cents below minimum wage. To say it was back-breaking work would be an understatement. Hard labor would be more accurate.

Before Geauga Lake, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to major in at Akron. By the time the fall semester started, I had no doubt.

Then there was the summer after college when I was trying to find a decent-paying job in my career field. To hold me over, I took a job with my uncle’s local construction company for $6 an hour. Swinging trusses at 8 a.m., carrying cement footers, and crawling up a ladder with one hand while delicately balancing a bag of roof shingles hanging over my shoulder with the other made me miss the good old days of sweating to the oldies at Geauga Lake.

And then, after losing my job in my career field in 2017, I was hired as a kennel assistant in Aurora while I figured out what I wanted to do next in life. I went into it thinking how much fun it would be playing with puppies and came out of it with a profound respect for the demanding and thankless job that kennel workers do. And if you think that handling angry, snarling, slobbering dogs was tough, handling some of their angry, snarling, slobbering owners was far tougher.

But one job tops them all and makes me thankful every day for the job I have now with The Portager: The year and a half I worked as a third shift animal care attendant at a veterinary hospital. And by third shift I mean I was the only human being in the building from midnight to 7 a.m.

I went from the kennel in Aurora to the veterinary hospital in Summit County. I did it partly for more pay, and partly because it was closer to home. And I quickly realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Nor was I in Oz. I was in a hell on Earth for the sick, suffering and dying dogs and cats that were under my care overnight. My job — in addition to mopping, cleaning, and doing laundry as well as keeping a close eye on the kennel side of the facility — was to administer medication, perform various treatments and even start life-saving procedures (or at least try to) on patients in the middle of the night while hoping and praying that the veterinarian and on-call vet technician I contacted (usually waking them out of a sound sleep) made it to the building in time to save them. Thankfully, most of them were saved. Most of them.

While I did receive on-the-job training from staff — things like how to give IV meds, fill IV bags and walk three-legged dogs who’d just had a leg amputated — I didn’t have formal training or education. But I basically knew enough, and could do enough, to get through the night.

What I was completely unprepared for, and what drove me from the industry, were two simple facts: The constant, heart-pounding stress of tending to these poor animals and often being on “death watch.” And … I saw things.

And no matter how much time goes by — and it’s been two years now — I can’t unsee them. In my mind’s eye, I can still see them in their death throes and it haunts me. Most passed peacefully, if you call a pneumonia patient struggling for every breath in the oxygen chamber peaceful. Or a dog with heartworms slowly dying of heart failure. Or a cancer patient suffering agonizing pain before slipping away.

But those were peaceful compared to what else I saw, which I will not describe here. It was my job, and I will not burden others with what I saw in an animal’s not-so-peaceful final moments. Those poor creatures and what they endured will forever stay with me — but only me.

While we did somehow manage to save most of our patients during emergencies in the wee hours, we couldn’t save all of them. Like one of our veterinarians used to say, “We’re not winning this one.” And in veterinary medicine, “not winning this one” means a pet owner is getting that dreaded phone call from the vet in the middle of the night telling them that their dog or cat just died.

I knew right away that I was stepping into a different world when, during my working interview, a manager was showing me around the building and introducing me to employees when I noticed a large dog, clearly deceased, lying on its side on a gurney. What struck me was that the gurney was in a busy hallway just off the hospital’s main treatment room, with vets and technicians walking past it like it wasn’t there.

My first thought was, “That poor dog is dead. Do these people not care?” Then the chilling reality occurred to me: “They’re used to it.”

Yes, they cared, but death surrounded them every day. It was part of the job. They either found a way to compartmentalize their emotions and move on to help the next animal, or they would have to find another line of work.

Most if not all of them had received formal veterinary technician schooling and/or training. And in the course of that, they either were taught how to handle the emotional side of the job or learned it through experience.

I never did. I couldn’t. I’m not wired that way. Every death was like the first death all over again. For me, it was two-fold: I was sad for the dog and cat that died, and I was sad for the owner who had to receive the terrible news. Anyone who has gotten that phone call knows what I’m talking about.

Veterinary technicians become hardened to death because they have to; if they weren’t able to steel themselves against it, they couldn’t perform their job effectively.

Their mental strength amazed me. And I was equally amazed at how skilled and knowledgeable they were in the field of veterinary medicine. They weren’t just people helping the vets. They were a critical piece of the operation, the most experienced of them only a couple notches below the vets themselves in the chain of animal care.

They are physically strong, too, and possess superhuman courage. It’s gutsy enough to try to wrangle a German Shepherd or Rottweiler to administer medication; it’s another thing entirely to be brave enough to stick your hand anywhere near their mouth and not be concerned about pulling back a bloody stump of an arm.

Vet techs are on their feet for upwards of 12 hours a shift. They handle animals that can be dangerous and unpredictable. They see absolutely awful things. They work under extreme pressure and stress – veterinarians rely on them for just about everything, and their job is literally a matter of life and death. That constant pressure can cause them to turn on each other at times.

Perhaps worst of all: They have to deal with pet owners, who are stressed out as well because something is wrong with Fluffy, and it needs to be fixed — now. It’s not at all uncommon for vet techs to be screamed at and cussed out by angry clients.

And they do all that despite being woefully underpaid. According to ZipRecruiter, as of Sept. 26, 2023, the average hourly pay for a veterinarian assistant in Ohio is $15.47 an hour. A fast-food worker in Ohio makes $14.79 an hour — usually with better benefits.

So while National Veterinary Technician Week starts Oct. 15, as far I’m concerned, every day is National Veterinary Technician Day. I’ve seen them in action, I’ve been trained by them, I’ve worked alongside them, I’ve seen what they’ve seen, I’ve suffered the same burnout that chases them out of the industry at a startling 25% clip.

It’s been two years since I saw the vet techs I worked with, but I will never forget them and what they did.

Nor will I forget those poor, suffering animals in our care.

Especially the ones that didn’t win.

+ posts

Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.