Steph MacPherson originally qualified as a Registered Animal Nursing Auxiliary (RANA) in 1984 – at a time just before the title ‘Veterinary Nurse’ could be used in the UK. Originally working in the UK – including the New Forest, Somerset, the Lake District and even the Shetland Islands – her career has since taken her to New Zealand, where she has remained for the past 34 years. There, Steph was one of the founding members of the New Zealand Veterinary Nursing Association (NZVNA) which was established in 1992, and continues her work as an RVN under the AVPRC – New Zealand’s voluntary regulatory council.

In this two-part blog series written for Veterinary Nursing Awareness Month, Steph reflects on the huge amount of progress she has seen in the profession throughout her career. In Part 1, she recalls the working conditions from when she first entered the profession as a trainee veterinary nurse – and the stark contrast we would recognise from veterinary practice today!

I never set out to become a Veterinary Nurse.

Like many growing up in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, my career focus was to become a veterinarian. James Herriot had a lot to answer for!

I grew up in Southwest Scotland, in the rolling Galloways hills. When I wasn’t at school I was out with our local vets, visiting the local farms and spending time in the clinic. In those days, vets were jack of all trades, out calving in the mornings and then doing clinics and consults in the afternoon. Veterinarians would be referred to as doctor, and wore shirts and ties to farm calls.

Comparing the 1970’s with 2024, it is so different. We were limited in antibiotics, most were long acting; pain relief was unheard of except in rare cases – it was considered the patient would self-relieve i.e. if they moved post-op and it hurt, they wouldn’t move again. How times have changed!

Fast forward to 1980 and I had left school; my Vet School dreams crushed by different schooling systems, a body that required frequent realigning and fixing up, severe dyscalculia (undiagnosed in those days) and the English school system not recognising my Scottish grades from school. After a lengthy procedure that required me learning to walk again, I was bored at home, so my mother suggested I got in touch with the local Vet Hospital to see if I could do some work experience there. I had left school, couldn’t ride my ponies (my escape from surgeries) and was moping round the house annoying everyone! Mother ended up calling the clinic, she was well known as a breeder of West Highland White Terriers and Labradors, so had a good record there – as breeders go!

As it happened, the clinic was one of the few RCVS Hospitals to offer Veterinary Nurse training, and a rare vacancy had come about to be able to train as a Veterinary Nurse. I remember being not overly enthused about this! Pony time would be considerably less, and I’d move out of home. But I had been incredibly lucky to travel a lot as a child, so this was not really an issue. Interviews were completed and I found myself in my green stripes, arm puff sleeves, white cotton/plastic apron, black belt, and yellow monitoring badge.

Trainee life was good in the Hospital. We had an amazing RANA who knew EVERYTHING, and we hung on her every word, all hoping to aspire one day to the lofty heights of a green uniform, revered badge, and most of all – knowledge. We had high standards in the hospital, and one of the partners was an RCVS examiner, so could guide us accordingly in our training. I attended college one day a week to do theory, which I loved, the rest was on the job. I earned £25 a week, and we had a flat above the clinic. I took to the practical nursing side like a duck to water, and I credit my background to being able to do this so well, the sight of blood and other bodily fluids did not worry me a bit.

Drugs and anaesthesia were pretty basic. We used ether for cats, masked down then intubated and popped on Halothane. Dogs got 5% Thiopentone, or 2.5% for small dogs. All premeds were based on a Spaniel weighing 30kgs, and cats rarely received a premed, maybe some atropine for the ether, and a bit of ACP. Pain relief was limited to Pethidine, and Morphine – I remember being told to NEVER give this to cats as they’d climb the walls, ACP and Atropine were our routine premed drugs. We had a Boyles bottle for the ether, settings – on, middle and off – and the Halothane was a Boyles bottle too, until a Halothane Vaporizer was purchased, amongst much excitement.

I remember Rompun, Nembutal, Brietal, Sagatal, Ketamine used neat for ‘fractious cats’ – “just squirt the fractious ones in the eyes with a syringe of Ketamine(!)” – luckily, we didn’t have to resort to that ever. The advent of Saffan – what a revolution – until the swollen paws, ears and faces of the cats became apparent, the rough recoveries, and the hyperthermia. Immobilon was commonly used for horses, and also for aggressive dogs. We had the fear of God drummed into us trainees about the risk of Immobilon and to have the antidote drawn up already. I also recall using Fentanyl and Droperidol to produce a state of neuroleptanalgesia – to “allow certain minor procedures” to be carried out.

We had to iron our scrubs, uniforms, and surgical gowns. It was up to the theatre nurse to get up at 7am and go and clean down the theatre, lay instrument packs out in an aseptic manner, check the temperature of the theatre and warm the Halothane vaporiser if it was cold. Sometimes in the winter, surgery would be delayed until theatre was warm enough, and the vaporiser was warm enough! We used an old tea cosy to complete this! Theatre was a large room, with light green tiles, and a lino coved floor. There were no heat pads for the patients, but we did use towels and blankets for them. If a patient was cold, we used a hot water bottle.

Our consulting rooms were large, bright and had huge bay windows which looked out over a lovely garden. Our waiting room was full from 5pm – 8pm every night, and consults were full on. Our drug cabinet in the consulting room was a large, wooden cabinet with glass doors. All drugs were kept there, and everything was aligned neatly. The Vets were assigned a Veterinary Nurse to consult with them, so we very quickly learnt our drugs, dosages, medical conditions, got to restrain for meds and simple procedures like nail clips, ear and eye meds. The key for the drug cabinet was held by our Head Nurse, and if you were on call over the weekend – YOU got to LOOK after the key and feel important when someone asked for it!

Every morning, whoever was on call at night – we did on call with the Vets – had to take them coffee on a tray with a selection of biscuits on a bone china plate. This was a serious business, and the process involved making the coffee (or tea, in a tea pot) with a jug of milk covered in a cotton doily with the little sparkly beads to keep it in place, cups and saucers – no mugs in the Vets’ office (!) and cube sugar in a bowl with silver tongs. We had to knock on the door, wait to be called in, and enter the office where the partners were usually either smoking a pipe or discussing cases. Some days, as a trainee, we were asked how our training was going, and if we needed any help. It was a nerve-wracking time!

Of course, a flat with 5 trainee Veterinary Nurses was always busy, loud and a bit messy. We did have to be aware of the fact that the clinic and surgery was below us, so parties were reserved for the weekends.

Radiography was one of my favourite tasks, and I enjoyed working in that area. No fancy digital x-rays, we took our own x-rays – we did have gowns, gloves and thyroid shields, and rotated round in the team. Processing was chemicals poured into cat litter trays, and decanted back again once the x-rays were processed. We collected the silver from the fixer, and every 6 months or so it would be collected.

Exam time was tough. I sailed through the first year – and proudly wore my grey belt to denote my second- year trainee status. In the early 1980’s we could do one of two things to qualify – stay in clinic and qualify at college; or finish our training, complete our “Green Book” and then finalise theory at college. As I was considered a “senior trainee”, I opted to complete my Green Book, and headed off to Berkshire College of Agriculture to complete my theory. A whole new world opened up. There were about 60 trainee Veterinary Nurses and a few hundred Agriculture students – so you can imagine the shenanigans! We had some amazing lecturers though; our reproduction lecturer was a lovely lady who referred to us all as “ladies!” (not sure any of us were) and our radiography lecturer strode around the lecture theatre with a long TV arial he used to prod us with if we were not concentrating. Every morning, we had to walk into class and say, “Radiography is NOT a spectator sport” – he was brilliant.

I failed my finals first time round. A particularly heavy night out at the Dew Drop Pub on college grounds, which resulted in us “borrowing” the plastic chairs and tables for the pool at college, and the resulting hangover meant I was toast for a 3-hour written paper. It was a wake-up call though. I studied hard for my second go, and in those days, you were only allowed two chances to sit the papers.

I passed second time with flying colours, and I well remember going up to the Royal College in London to sit my final practical tasks. I went on the train with a trainee buddy, nervously flicking through our old Jones’s textbook, well-thumbed and scribbled on! Arriving at the Royal College was overwhelming and walking the hallowed halls to the different exam rooms, daunting. In August 1984 I received my RANA certificate from the Royal College to say I had passed – and in November of the same year, another to say I was a Veterinary Nurse. This was after the name change that allowed us to call ourselves Veterinary Nurses.

Thank you, Steph, for sharing your experiences – Find out more about this year’s Veterinary Nursing Awareness Month at; https://bvna.org.uk/project/vnam-2024/