I had just completed my first year of veterinary school and was starting my summer job at a specialty hospital as an ER technician. I figured I could do it.

I survived my first year of vet school, which is notoriously one of the hardest, did well in my classes, and had years of experience in private practice. I thought, “How hard could this be?”

Well, the first thing I learned in working in emergency is that comparing it to general practice is like comparing apples to oranges.

There aren’t any appointments, work ups are constantly happening, and you have to be ready to drop everything when a true emergency (what we call a “triage now”) gets called on the loudspeaker.

I essentially spent my whole first summer feeling like an idiot. I had never worked up a critically sick blocked cat where the potassium is so high the patient might cardiac arrest. I had never seen seizures so severe you can’t even get a catheter in. And don’t even get me started on all the different types of drugs and doses you need to know off the top of your head.

Saying I was overwhelmed was the understatement of the year. Every night I came home I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. I would come home and do research on what I saw that day, to ensure I didn’t make the same mistake twice. The next time I was asked how to diagnose pericardial effusion on triage, I would be ready.

So how did I survive all of this and continue to do emergency throughout vet school? One word – technicians.

Out of all of the mistakes I made when learning how to work in emergency, the one thing I did right was befriending the technicians. They taught me everything I needed to know in order to succeed during my shift. CRIs, fluid boluses, medication uses, you name it. And more than just that, they taught me how to be thorough.

One of the most important things you can do when working in emergency is be detail-oriented and write thorough treatment notes. A slight change in mentation could be the difference between sending the patient home or catching an underlying disease that may have been life-threatening.

As I continued to work in emergency throughout vet school, I felt my abilities as an emergency technician improve. I was able to detect low grade murmurs on triage that a year ago I would have missed. I was able to differentiate a triage that should be seen right away vs. another patient that could wait. And most importantly, I began understanding what the doctors wanted.

When getting an initial history, if I suspected the patient was a sick diabetic, possible even ketotic, I knew what the doctor would want to do to stabilize; IV catheter, blood pressure, fluid boluses, and measurements of blood glucose and ketones. And through all of this, not only did I gain confidence in my ability to be a good technician, but also my ability to be a good veterinarian.

If I could give one piece of advice to any veterinary student who thinks that they know more than experienced technicians – stay humble. You might be at the top of your class and ace all your exams, but multiple choice questions are not real life.

Nothing is more valuable than a technician who is willing to teach you. So ask questions, take notes, and don’t be afraid to fail. And most importantly, be nice to your technicians.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.


Charlotte Burns is a third year veterinary student at Penn Vet. Her
veterinary interests include emergency and critical care and shelter medicine. She live in Philadelphia with my cat Khan, and when she is not studying for school, she works as an emergency nurse at a specialty practice in Philadelphia.r.