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 2, she reflects on the career opportunities she has followed since qualifying as a veterinary nurse.

You can read Part 1 here.

In August 1984 I received my RANA certificate from the Royal College – 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.

From then on, the world was my oyster. I applied for and got a job as 2IC in the New Forest, at Seadown Veterinary Hospital. It was a fabulous place to start my life as a RANA, and with a great team of greenies and stripeys, we learnt a lot, supported each other and were able to work to our strengths. I enjoyed radiography, and we did a fair amount of equine work. VNs were really well utilised in this clinic, and we had the opportunity to really grow our skill set. I took a year out in 1986, to travel to Western Australia on a farm exchange. This is really another story – for another time!

I returned to Seadown for another year, and then decided to move on and went to Illminster in Somerset. The practice was very James Herriot, run out of the back of the clinic. Wooden kennels, a wooden surgery table that doubled as a consult table with a rubber mat. It was a lovely place to work, geographically beautiful, and the Vets were great to work with. We bought an old warehouse in town and converted it to a clinic – so we did away with the wooden kennels and had a real surgery!

Illminster led me to the Lake District, where I applied for a job as a senior VN to do equine work – my dream job – or so I thought! The equine clinic was miles away in a converted barn… Need I say more as I am sure you can imagine the chaos! We used the “clinic” once – for a gelding. Most of the equine work was ambulatory, so I spent a fair amount of time on the road doing equine exams, and prepurchase. It was a great clinic to work in, lots of variety with caseloads, and best of all, I met my husband there. Marry a Vet they said, it’ll be fun they said!

The Lake District took us to Shetland, a wedding in the Highlands, and then off to Australia. A year in the Southern Highlands in NSW and then onto New Zealand, and the rest they say, is history. In 1992 the New Zealand Veterinary Nursing Association was set up, and I am proud to be one of the founding members of this organisation. I am a Past President, Honorary Member and continue to support and advance the profession. My career in New Zealand has been varied, fun, and I have loved every minute of it. The ups and downs of juggling life with 3 children and a busy Veterinarian husband have been challenging but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Most of my life in NZ has been in education, and I have experienced so many changes within the VN training programs rolled out here. I have been lucky enough to be able to work in clinical practice and return to teaching, which has kept me current with the constant change we see in our profession.

Working through Covid in 2020 in a specialty equine clinic was especially challenging and I admire the tenacity of my fellow colleagues who had it really tough during that time. Their resilience and sense of care and compassion is to be respected.

What do I miss from the 1980’s? Ease of being able to do things without social media and keyboard warriors! The respect and trust most clients showed in those days – the Veterinarian was seen as a deity, and their word was gospel. I miss the simplicity of life in general, the fun, the laughs we had. I miss the passion and desire we had to become Veterinary Nurses – there were not many of us, and places to train and exams to pass were limited.  I am sure there are many other things I miss, maybe they are lost in my memories, parked somewhere to be stimulated by a photograph or a person. Vets consulting in white coats and wearing a shirt and tie – even for large animal calls. Vets being referred to as Mr, Mrs or Miss, and in some cases with the female vets, out on call – to be asked “where’s Mr so and so”, and the look of surprise when a female vet and VN turned up on the farm! I only miss this because it was what happened in those days – I value each and every one of the vets I have worked with, regardless of gender.

The clinic pharmacy was a place of wonder – lots of brown poison bottles, no one really knew what was in some of them if you worked in a large animal or mixed practice. Identification was done by the sniff test in some cases.

I miss the wonderful lunches farmers’ wives would make us after TB testing. In those days it was a slab of cheese, homemade bread and a dollop of farm butter and pickles. A piece of fruit for afters, and a cup of tea from the flask, with a squirt of milk out of the cows’ teat, or the milk shed bucket.

What don’t I miss? Nuvan Top, Nuvan Staykill – they were the be all and end all of flea infestations. I can still remember the smell of the spray; it could remove your nasal lining! The kittens with OP poisoning after overzealous owners spraying with Nuvan Top. Key Gaskell kittens and young cats – in the early 1980’s we didn’t really know what we were dealing with and had to treat symptomatically. Black anaesthetic tubing and rebreathing bags! Orange rubber endotracheal tubes, Halothane! Ironing my scrubs and theatre gowns.

I don’t miss the poor options for pain relief we had, when I consider what we have available to us now, and our patients are so well managed with this. I don’t miss the limited diagnostic tools that we have much more readily available to us nowadays. We coped well with film x-rays, simple diagnostic techniques and limited imaging options. Rollodex patient cards – everything was paper based of course. Glass syringes and having to autoclave plastic syringes to re-use them! We all had a bucket of syringes in soak – waiting to be cleaned and packaged. Spaying dogs after their first heat, or allowing a litter of puppies to be born – look how that has changed!

I could go on about those halcyon days. But that requires a book. Perhaps that is my next project!

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/