On the Front Lines of Animal Heart Care

Cummings School’s Kristen Antoon, one of 20 veterinary technicians in the country certified in cardiology, talks about the challenges and rewards of her work

Kristen Antoon

Kristen Antoon, a veterinary technician at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Foster Hospital for Small Animals, a year ago became the 20th certified veterinary technician specialist in cardiology in the United States. Her responsibilities include working with clients and their pets and conducting baseline evaluations such as electrocardiograms (ECGs), which can reveal any irregularities in heartbeats, as well as assisting with and performing echocardiograms and non-invasive blood pressure and cardiac catheter procedures.

A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in animal science, she joined the ICU team at Tufts in 2007, after working as an ICU and cardiology veterinary technician at Angell Animal Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. While working in the ICU, she developed a passion for cardiology, and joined the Tufts cardiology team in 2012. In 2015, she started the application process to become a veterinary technician specialist in cardiology, a specialty recognized by the Academy of Internal Medicine for Veterinary Technicians.  

Emily Tompkins Karlin, V08, a resident in cardiology, praised Antoon as someone who pays “remarkable attention to patient care,” she said. “She is so dedicated to the health and overall well-being of our patients, and consistently goes above and beyond for them.”

Recently, Antoon talked with Tufts Now about her work and how she’s inspiring other veterinary technicians to also aim high.

Tufts Now: What kind of work did you do when you first came?

Kristen Antoon: I was in intensive care, but when a job opened up in the cardiology department, I applied. The heart is a very complicated organ to understand, but I wanted a challenge. While the ICU is an environment of hustle and bustle, in cardiology we have a chance to get to know the client and the patient—to establish a relationship. I like being able to talk to the owners and be a resource for them. I have some long-term clients who are very grateful for the care our team provides.   

What’s a typical day like as a cardiology technician?

I help ensure that the cardiology service runs smoothly. For example, I make sure that students are getting into the appointments on time, and teach students routine procedures like drawing blood or obtaining ECGs. For surgeries, I set up the table, prepare the patient for the procedure. During the surgical procedure, I make sure the pet remains stable, which includes close monitoring of the ECG and blood pressure.

How many animals does your unit see in an average day?

On a typical day, we may perform anywhere from four to 10 echocardiograms, for our outpatient appointments and/or in-house consultations. On a very busy day we may perform anywhere from 12 to 18 echocardiograms. The echocardiogram is an important diagnostic test because it tells us what the heart looks like structurally and how well it is functioning. Overall, our patient flow varies from day to day; the emergency room could have six cardiac cases come in back to back, and we have to be ready to respond. 

How do you make a potentially stressful experience less stressful?

Keeping calm is a good start. We understand that cats and dogs have their own personalities and respond to stressful situations differently. So we learn from our experience with individual patients and make a note in their records regarding their individual preferences. For example, some behave better with their owners close by. Others are calmer if they can hide with a blanket over their head. Still others prefer a minimal amount of restraint, so that they don’t feel confined. Getting to know our clients and their animals on a personal level always makes the next visit easier.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job—and the most difficult?

I think for everyone working in the veterinary field, the most rewarding thing is seeing our patients go home and knowing that we gave them more time to spend with their families. It is very rewarding to receive thank-you letters from clients expressing their gratitude and appreciation.

The most difficult part of my job is the emotional side. Showing constant empathy and compassion goes a long way in helping our clients who may be going through the very difficult time of caring for a sick pet, but I have to be sure my own emotions don’t get the better of me.

Let’s look at the process of being certified. If vet techs want to specialize, what do they need to have?

Drive, perseverance and motivation. They need to have the desire to learn. It’s a long process. For the cardiology certification, you need three years of cardiology experience, and after that, another year for the application process to qualify to take the examination. You write four in-depth case reports, along with more than 50 case logs, and must acquire numerous continuing education hours and letters of recommendation.

You must have done some something right on the application.

I probably did more than I was supposed to; whatever they asked for, I did more.  

Do you remember when you heard that you had passed the exam?

I found out on July 15, 2016. One of the liaisons called the cardiology room and said, “Ed Durham from Ross University is on the phone and he has something to tell you.” I was a little anxious and overwhelmed. The cardio residents and faculty were wondering what was going on, but they soon realized when I started screaming in the background. It was a surreal moment. I had a lot of support from everyone in cardiology during this process. I couldn’t have done it without them.

What’s your perspective on the future of the field?

It’s really opened up professional opportunities for me. I’m speaking at the annual ACVIM [American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine] conference this year with two other specialty cardiology technicians, one from New Jersey and the other from Colorado. We’re presenting on cardiac catheter procedures. I’m also mentoring a veterinary technician at Virginia Tech who is starting her application process, and I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to take this extra step of pursuing specialization, whatever specialty they are interested in.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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