Animal School

When veterinary and vocational educators join forces, it’s a good outcome for pets in underserved communities
View photographs from the Worcester Tech veterinary clinic. Photos: Alonso Nichols
February 14, 2013

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Jon Hicks furrows his brow and scans the morning caseload. “Is that crypto...err…neuter still coming in?” he calls out to his teacher. “Is that where we removed one testicle, but missed the other?”

“Yes, a 1-year-old dog is coming in for a neuter,” Julia Fetherolf tells Hicks, 16, a student in the veterinary assisting program at Worcester Technical High School. Ever the patient teacher, she explains. “But a cryptorchid neuter is the surgery that’s performed when only one of the animal’s testicles is descended.”

Although the conversation might send most teen boys into fits of giggles and cause many a grown man to squirm, Hicks is all business. He wants to observe the delicate operation, which will prevent a family pet from getting cancer or suffering from testicular torsion, which cuts off the blood supply. “This is going to be kind of fun,” says Hicks. “We’ll be able to easily get the one that’s descended, but there’s going to be some fishing around for the one in the abdomen.”

He pauses and then adds, with a grin, “I guess this is where we separate the men from the boys.”

Until last spring, Hicks and 28 other juniors and seniors in the veterinary assisting program would have practiced on stuffed animals and listened to classroom lectures about how to interact with clients and their pets—lots of telling, but little showing.

Then two faculty members at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Elizabeth Rozanski and John Rush, had one amazingly creative idea: Why should aspiring veterinary assistants practice on toys when there is a large underserved pet population near their high school in central Massachusetts? And fourth-year Cummings students would surely benefit from more primary-care experience.

The vocational high school is now home to the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic, which offers subsidized care to pet owners who meet certain income guidelines.

The students from Tufts and Worcester Tech form a veterinary team that offers checkups, blood work, vaccinations, routine surgeries, dental cleaning and other primary care to 275 dogs, cats, rabbits and other small pets every month. Vet assisting at Worcester Tech, one of seven such licensed high school programs in the country, enables students to graduate with a high school diploma and veterinary assistant certification. The high school students take patient histories and staff the clinic as receptionists, cashiers and laboratory assistants.

Guided by clinic director Greg Wolfus, V98, the Tufts veterinary students provide a diagnosis and create a treatment plan for each pet. The Cummings students also contribute to the learning environment at the high school.

“Now that we’re working in a real clinic, we are also looking at X-rays and samples under a microscope and talking to the veterinary students about what these show,” says Hicks. “So it’s a really great learning experience.”

Most of the clinic’s clients qualify for food or housing assistance. Their average annual household income is about $15,000. “It is amazing how people who can’t always make ends meet will still find a way to come up with $10 to get their pet medical attention,” says Hicks.

This article first appeared in the winter 2013 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at genevieve.rajewski@tufts.edu.

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