Vocational Ed for Animal Lovers

The nation’s first on-the-job veterinary assistant program trains high schoolers and vet students at Tufts while delivering low-cost care
Anna Frazier at the Foster Hospital
Anna Frazier, a veterinary assistant who trained at Tufts at Tech, checks on a cat in an oxygen cage in the Foster Hospital ER. Photo: Alonso Nichols
February 17, 2017

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It was a Wednesday afternoon in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a busy veterinary clinic was humming, thanks in part to the efforts of a group of high school students. The guy at the front desk checking in patients and scheduling appointments over the phone, the veterinary assistant in scrubs leading the dog on a leash, and the three people discussing test results while huddled over lab equipment were all student staffers at the Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic, which operates out of the Worcester Technical High School.

Tufts at Tech is the nation’s first on-the-job veterinary assistant program at a high school. It allows students at the high school to graduate with both a traditional diploma and a veterinary assistant certificate that they can use to find work in a growing field.

In the program, a partnership between Worcester Tech and Cummings School, the high schoolers work under the guidance of fourth-year vet students, all supervised by on-site faculty veterinarians. Founded in 2012, Tufts at Tech provides hands-on training for students from both the high school and Tufts, and it delivers affordable and badly needed veterinary care to an economically disadvantaged community.

“The intent is to provide the two student populations with clinical opportunities resulting in subsidized care to a low-income-owned pet population,” said Gregory Wolfus, V98, director of Tufts at Tech. Veterinary services at Tufts at Tech cost just a quarter of the national average, and that has led to plenty of business. When Tufts at Tech opened four years ago, Wolfus’ goal was to serve 200 clients per month. Last year the clinic was seeing double that, and one month it cared for more than 550 animals.

At Tufts at Tech, the high school students are a client’s first point of contact. They escort the owners and pets into exam rooms and take detailed histories. The high schoolers then step out into the hall to confer with vet students. After that, the high school and vet students enter the room together for a physical exam. Only then does the professional vet on duty become involved, as a consultant in the back room for the veterinary student.

Three employees at the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals in North Grafton are graduates of the Tufts at Tech program. One, Anna Frazier, started out as an animal care attendant at the hospital before being promoted last fall to a veterinary assistant in the Emergency and Critical Care (ECC) department.

Frazier was a junior when the Tufts at Tech program launched. Before that, there was limited opportunity for hands-on learning in the veterinary assisting program. In addition to visiting a local farm, high school students would practice techniques on stuffed animals, which they called “stuffies.” “It wasn’t until they started Tufts at Tech that we got to interact with real dogs and cats, and put what we learned on stuffies into real practice,” Frazier said.

During a rare lull in the Foster ECC department, Frazier surveyed the animal wards, checking on a dachshund that had undergone back surgery and saying hello to a sheepish-looking Saint Bernard that, with quills sticking out of its face, appeared to have come up short during a porcupine encounter.

From Triage to Histories

Frazier said that as a veterinary assistant, she helps veterinary technicians with everything from triage to pet histories to handing instruments to doctors during surgery. It’s a rewarding occupation, and Frazier said that the Tufts at Tech program does an excellent job of preparing graduates for it, which is especially important given the projection by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that demand for veterinary assistants is expected to grow 9 percent between 2014 and 2024.

“At Tufts at Tech I had to learn to take charge, not to wait until someone told me to do something,” Frazier said. “You see that the patient is ready to be seen, you go take a history, you relay that history to a veterinary student. That helped with my confidence [at Foster Hospital], too. When I did my interview here, and my boss brought me through the wards, she asked me what the medical abbreviations and terminology meant on a cage, and I knew all of them.”

President Barack Obama spoke at Worcester Tech’s graduation in 2014, saying that he had “challenged high schools all across the country to do what you’re doing here—better prepare students for the demands of the global economy.”

Last February, Tufts at Tech received $348,000 through a Massachusetts Skills Workforce Grant awarded to Worcester Tech. Wolfus said Tufts at Tech will use the grant to help subsidize the care provided by the clinic, update lab equipment, and purchase a shuttle bus for the high school students.

The success of Tufts at Tech has sparked two similar subsidized veterinary assistant programs. The veterinarian Laurence Sawyer, V99, a Tufts at Tech volunteer, is the medical director at the new Angell at Nashoba Clinic, a partnership between the MSCPA-Angell Animal Medical Center and Nashoba Valley Technical High School in Westford, Massachusetts. Like Tufts at Tech, Angell at Nashoba, which opened in February, serves low-income pet owners.

Meanwhile, Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School and Becker College will offer their own clinic-based program starting next year. Julie Bailey, a Tufts at Tech volunteer and Cummings School adjunct professor who works in its Luke and Lily Lerner Spay Neuter Clinic, is the new program’s interim dean and current medical director.

“In addition to hands-on training, the veterinary students and high school students are better people for having come through Tufts at Tech,” Wolfus said. “Realizing that everyone in life may not have had all of the resources that they have had, and being kind to all animals regardless of the size of the wallet they’re attached to, is what society needs. How society treats its animals really has an impact on how society cares for humans.”

Lisa Liberty Becker, a freelance writer in Concord, Massachusetts, earned her B.A. in English and French from Tufts in 1993.

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