Vet-Med nurse loves her switch to new breed of patient
By Colleen MacPherson
After 30-odd years in the nursing profession, Heather Olson thought she'd pretty much seen and done it all, but that was before she met a whole different breed of patient at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH).
Horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, elk, bison, oxen, llamas, alpacas - these are the VTH clientele and today, after a little more than a year as the nursing care administrator and operating room (OR) nurse, Olson has learned a great deal about the world of veterinary medicine. She now knows where to stand when near a horse. She can tell a good sow mother from a bad one. She's learning to identify cattle breeds on sight. And she's learned "that veterinary people are where good people start - they're hard-working, serious, honest people". All this for a woman who admits she "didn't know anything about large or small animals when I started, except what I learned having dogs".
Moving from human to animal medicine was a big adjustment for Olson who, at 53, decided she "wanted to have a life and didn't want to work shifts or Christmas Days any more" in people hospitals. An opening for a nurse in the Large Animal Clinic was just the change she needed though she got more than she bargained for at first, having to also supervise small animal nursing temporarily. "But what a way to learn! I was so lucky. I got to know everybody during that time and I got to see the whole system work. And they put up with me!"
As she learned the ropes and eventually began to concentrate entirely on large animal nursing, Olson was surprised to find that the basics of care are the same for humans and animals alike.
"At first, all I could see were the differences but then I woke up one day and thought to look at the similarities."
There are, however, some adjustments to be made for animal patients. Dealing with sick animals that can outweigh her by several hundred pounds caused Olson to developed what she describes as "a healthy respect" for her patients. "I never feel fearful. After all, I worked nine years at the Correctional Centre. But I'm smart enough to be cautious, not afraid."
She has also grown to better appreciate the living conditions of large animals. Some will have major surgery, will walk out of the operating room "and they're gone", with little of the recovery period allowed humans. "It's a tough life but they survive and they do really well."
And although "we bring human standards to animal care and we're very stringent", Olson said she had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the way treatment decisions are made at the VTH. The cost of treatment can become a major consideration in veterinary medicine "and that was a little hard at first. In the human health care system, every life is precious and you really go all out, so it was hard to watch life and death decisions being made based on economics." On the other hand, seeing animals euthanized in order to end their suffering "sometimes makes me think they're smarter here than in the human world".
As she walks her 'wards', invariably stopping at each occupied stall to cast a trained eye over the occupant, to say hello or to reach in for a quick scratch between the ears, Olson said her busy job doesn't leave her as much time as she'd like for actual hands-on nursing like starting IVs. Those duties fall largely to the six animal health technicians she supervises. She also oversees the work of three barn men and seven weekend employees, and is responsible for ensuring the hospital facility itself is in good order.
It's in the operating room, though, that Olson makes good use of her years of experience. A native of Humboldt and a graduate of Mount Royal College in Calgary, Olson spent most of her career as an OR nurse, so at the VTH it's the part of the job closest to her heart.
Touring the large animal operating rooms, she explains the hoist systems used to move anesthetized patients and points out the instruments carts standing ready for emergency surgery. She also describes the scene during an operation where a surgeon often supervises a resident who does the surgery while any number of veterinary medicine students observe. Animal owners are often present too, watching and listening to the doctor explains the procedure. That, she said, is not something one sees in the human health care system and it's an indication to her of "just how confident the veterinarians are in what they do".
She estimated the hospital does an average of five to eight surgeries per week and, just as when she worked with humans, her favourite operations are Cesarean sections.
"I just love them. I never minded being woken up to come in for a C-section. My mother used to say that every new life is a gift from God and I believe there's no such thing as an ugly mammal baby."
One of the unexpected results of her work is that she's lost her fondness for eating meat, but that's a small price to pay for the chance to work with people she admires and animals she adores.
"I love being a nurse. I just can't imagine doing anything else."