Community Medicine Keeps Pets Out of Shelters
Imagine this scenario: You’re a single parent living in public housing, and your salary barely covers your living expenses. How do you afford veterinary care for your beloved pet?
That’s where the veterinary specialty of community medicine comes in, to care for animals with owners who might not otherwise be able to afford veterinary care. One of the goals of community medicine is to keep animals in homes where they are loved and prevent them from being turned over to a shelter.
"We provide high-quality, affordable care that prevents relinquishment,” said Kayla Sample, a veterinarian at Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic which is run by Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and offers significantly subsidized animal care to qualified clients. "Sometimes the animal is a person's world, and they have everything that they need besides affordable veterinary care. That's what we offer.”
Sample, who received her D.V.M. from the University of Minnesota, was the first community medicine intern at Tufts at Tech. The opportunity lured her to Massachusetts from the Midwest in 2018, and she stayed on as staff after the internship ended. Her successor is Jane Waterfall, V18, who said she’s learning trouble-shooting skills in a community medicine practice where clients have tight budgets.
“I'm focusing on dermatology, because that's a chronic concern that a lot of people are very frustrated with and, over a lifetime, can be very expensive,” Waterfall said. “Dentistry is another big one —pretty much every animal would benefit from dentistry work.”
Sample agreed that learning how to prioritize is essential for working within budget constraints. They ask questions such as, what does this pet need today, what can wait, and what test is most likely to give a diagnosis the veterinarian can treat?
Sample also said the internship helped her hone communication skills, which are essential for understanding a patient’s situation in any veterinary practice.
“Taking the time to listen to clients and understand how your veterinary care plan is going to fit within their lifestyle is key because you two are going to work to provide the best care for that animal with the resources and time that you have,” said Sample. “We don't ever compromise our medical care for finances, but we do help owners prioritize and come to the best conclusions on what's going to help that animal today.”
In addition to the veterinarians on staff, Tufts at Tech relies on volunteer veterinarians, many of whom are Cummings School alumni, who donate their time to the clinic and veterinary students from Cummings School who spend time at the clinic gaining practical experience as part of their clinical rotations. Waterfall said that the wide variety of veterinary students and doctors at the clinic “troubleshoot problems from all different directions with all different skill sets.” Sample also praised the collaborative nature at the clinic.
“Jane and I both have incredible mentor doctors who work here, who have years of experience, who love what they do, who love to teach, who are absolutely up to date on all the latest literature,” she said. “This is one of the most important environments I've ever been in in my entire life. And I feel so fortunate to have access to not only their expertise and experience, but also their kindness, and their willingness to push me to be a better doctor.”
They also find that working with veterinary students is a great way to stay up-to-date on the latest studies or methods. When they’re challenged by a student, they see it as an opportunity to grow as professionals, to update their information, and to rethink their reasons for taking a particular approach.
Both Waterfall and Sample said they entered veterinary medicine because they love animals. But it turns out they love another aspect of the job just as much: working with and teaching high school students.
Tufts at Tech is located in Worcester Technical High School, and high school students can assist veterinarians as part of their coursework. In the nation’s first such on-the-job veterinary assistant program at a high school, students learn the basics of booking veterinary appointments, interacting with clients and animals, and testing lab samples.
“The high school students are fantastic in every way,” said Sample. “They're funny, they have a great attitude, they are excited to be here, and they are helpful. They make my day on a daily basis.”
The Driving Force
About three million animals are euthanized every year in the United States. A good chunk of that is preventable, Waterfall said. “We just don’t have a home for every animal. If you can offer preventative medicine, which includes not only the very basic vaccines and heartworm prevention but also nutrition and spaying/neutering, you can make a huge impact,” she said.
Sample recently started splitting her time between Tufts at Tech and directing a new program —inspired by Tufts at Tech—at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg. She said her community medicine internship at Tufts at Tech was the best thing she could have done to prepare for the position.
“I can change someone's life by affecting their animal. I can keep an animal where they are loved, where they have a home. I can provide a person with a support system. I can provide somebody with an animal that will love them unconditionally regardless of what kind of financial situation they're in or what what they look like that day,” Sample said. “The fact that I can truly impact someone's life while helping an animal means the world to me.”
Angela Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.