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Veterinary Medicine

Oncology nurses put the 'care' in patient health care

August 25, 2010

If you have been a client of the Colorado State University Animal Cancer Center, it is likely that you have met one or more of our highly efficient oncology nurses. Like their counterparts in the human health care field, veterinary oncology nurses are vital members of the health care team. Without their skilled assistance, it would be impossible to provide the high level of medical care that is the signature of the Animal Cancer Center.

Stresses and unexpected joys

Veterinary oncology nurses are well-trained professionals who perform multiple, detailed daily tasks to care for patients suffering from cancer.

In a group interview, the staff of five professionals discussed the stresses and unexpected joys in a typical workday, why they love their work, and how they maintain a work-life balance.

“The desire to care for animals is important, but it is only part of what makes a good oncology nurse,” Elizabeth Atencio, nursing supervisor at the ACC, explained. “It is important to like people and to be able to communicate clearly because client communication is an essential part of our job – one of the best parts. Recognizing a client’s stress, and being able to ease some of that stress is important.”

Going above and beyond

Atencio certainly understands client stress since her first experience with the Animal Cancer Center was as a client. She had recently graduated from CSU with a microbiology degree and was working in a small-animal clinic when her beloved Jack Russell terrier, Picasso, was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma. She was nervous when she brought him to the ACC for treatment.

“I was impressed by how well we were treated throughout the experience,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the clinician went above and beyond to accommodate my schedule, coming in on her days off to perform certain procedures.”

Atencio was so impressed with the level of care that she wanted to be a part of the team. She returned as a volunteer, was finally hired as an oncology nurse, and has been on staff for five years.

Must pass a national exam

Alexa Pickles, a native of Loveland, Colo.; and Polly Webb, a native of Baltimore, Md.; are both graduates of the two-year Veterinary Technology Program in Fort Collins and are certified veterinary technicians. Meredy Razey, a Denver native and a graduate of the two-year program at Bel-Rea Institute in Denver, and Mary Lafferty are also certified veterinary technicians.

To become certified, or licensed, an individual must first graduate from a two- or four-year professional program approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association, and then must pass a national exam.

Even after client and patient return home, they are still "family" to the clinicians and nursing staff at the Animal Cancer Center.

Pickles worked in a small-animal clinic before joining the staff at the ACC. Recently married, Pickles’ husband was an army veterinary nurse who retrained as a combat medic and now works in the human health care field. Although he loves his work, Pickles wouldn’t switch because, “I have the more interesting patients!”

Making a difference in cancer fight

Razey came to work for Dr. Steve Withrow in 1985, before the Animal Cancer Center existed. She admired the level of commitment shown by the clinicians in general and by Dr. Withrow in particular. Then, as now, the demands of a teaching hospital are challenging, she said, but she loves her job and believes the ACC is making a difference in the fight against cancer.

Webb spent three years in the Equine Medicine Department at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital before coming to the Animal Cancer Center in January. Although still adjusting to working with smaller animals, the job perks are the same: getting to know the clients and caring for patients. Like the students, residents, and researchers working with her, she “learns something new each day.”

Typical workday

A typical workday begins at 7:30 a.m. and usually ends at 5 p.m. During morning “rounds,” the day’s caseload is reviewed and treatments, procedures, and duties assigned. The nurses share responsibilities for checking in animals for surgery, rechecks, chemotherapy, and other procedures. They assist in:

  • conducting tumor biopsies
  • perform blood draws
  • prepare tissue, blood, and bone samples for the lab
  • verify dosages and administer chemotherapy or other medications
  • maintain patient and client records
  • offer soft touches, gentle smiles, and encouraging words to every patient

“We are fortunate to have highly skilled nurses,” said Dr. Barbara Biller, medical oncologist. “They are well-trained professionals who have to perform multiple, detailed tasks daily to care for our patients, and also communicate well with our clients to help put them at ease. A skilled nursing staff makes a big difference when the goal is to provide the best medical care.”

Maintaining a work-life balance

These nurses love their work, but know the importance of maintaining a work-life balance because it makes it easier to meet the demands of a fast-paced oncology service.

Atencio loves to travel and enjoys a broad range of music. Razey also loves globetrotting and doing anything in the great outdoors such as hiking, skiing, and biking.

Pickles and her husband are avid scuba divers who have tested the waters in Tahiti and the Virgin Islands. While Webb loves to dance, is a talented horsewoman, and a certified equine massage therapist.

“It can be an intense experience for both the client and the staff while an animal is undergoing treatment, so there is a bond that forms,” the nurses agreed. "Sometimes it is very hard to say goodbye when they go home.”

Professionalism, compassion, individualized care

Although clients may be strangers when they first visit the Animal Cancer Center, through that unique mixture of professionalism, compassion, and individualized care, they become family while their pets undergo treatment. Even after client and patient return home, which may be in another city, state, or country, they are still “family” to the clinicians and nursing staff at the Animal Cancer Center.

Originally published in the Animal Cancer Center News, Summer 2010.