In this week’s Career Focus segment, Clodagh Hughes, freelance writer at That’s Farming, speaks to veterinary nurse, Fionnuala Ann Byrne.
Fionnuala Ann Byrne is the head veterinary nurse in a bustling veterinary hospital, The Avenue Vets, in Dundalk, Co Louth.
She comes from the drumlin-dotted countryside just outside Carrickmacross in south Co. Monaghan.
She describes how she discovered her love for animals. “From a really young age, I used to help my aunty on her sheep farm. I helped her with shearing, foot care and lambing.”
“And it is from here that my interest in wanting to work with animals developed.”
Although she knew that she wanted a career working with animals, Fionnuala Ann did not go straight into veterinary nursing.
After completing her Leaving Certified, she studied art for two years and then worked in an electronics factory in Carrickmacross for a stint before she secured a job at The Avenue Vets in Dundalk.
“It was during my time here that I got accepted onto a pre-veterinary nursing course in Greenmount, Co. Antrim in 2002-2003.”
And this is truly where her career in veterinary nursing started.
After finishing the first level of her training, Fionnuala Ann continued to study, alongside working full-time in the industry until she completed her qualifications as a veterinary nurse.
Commenting on the differences in how she obtained her qualifications and the options available now, Fionnuala Ann says,
“When I was studying, there were only two courses available if you wanted to become a veterinary nurse.”
“There was Greenmount in Co. Antrim or University College Dublin. Nowadays, there are many more courses available in colleges around the country.”
Another interesting point Fionnuala Ann highlights is how “when I was undergoing my nursing education, I was also working full-time in a veterinary clinic in Newry in Co. Down”.
“I liked this course because it was very focussed on the practical application of animal nursing.”
“Once a month, we had a week dedicated to the academic side of the course.”
She goes on to say, “in my opinion; this was a better way to learn because, as a student nurse, you saw so much of real, everyday practice and got a proper feel for the realities of the profession”.
After getting her qualifications, she stayed with the same practice for nine years until she and her partner took off to pursue their dream of travelling in their beloved Landrover.
They visited; Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and Western Sahara and then, returned home.
After returning from her travels, she resumed her position in the practice in Newry for a period.
She then secured a job at The Avenue Veterinary Hospital in Co. Louth. And it is here that she is still working today, heading up a team of veterinary nurses and working closely alongside the vets.
“It is like I have come full circle, back to the first practice I worked in,” she observes.
The Avenue Veterinary Hospital
The Avenue Veterinary Hospital was a mixed practice, treating small animals, livestock and equine patients.
But, as many businesses do, it changed to keep up with the challenges and ups and downs that the industry encountered over the years.
Its focus on small animal practice has paid off due to its urban location and the advancements in small animal medicines and procedures.
And, as Fionnuala Ann explains, “There are more people with pets nowadays, and a lot of these pet owners really take care of their pets, sometimes better than themselves,” she adds.
Impact of Covid-19
She commented that the Covid-19 pandemic presented “a very strange and challenging time”.
The practice was “busier than ever, and at the height of the restrictions, it was extremely hard on everyone”.
“We were open and seeing patients as normal the whole way throughout the pandemic.”
“We implemented a system that worked for us, and most of our clients were very understanding, but it was tough at times.”
Asked about the rise in pet ownership over the pandemic period, Fionnuala Ann confirms that it was a correct statement, “which only made us busier,” she adds.
She also makes a very interesting observation about Covid-19, as she experienced it first-hand in her workplace.
She says they witnessed a genuine rise in the number of pet owners attending the hospital and the frequency of these visits.
Some of this she puts down to the fact that, because people were spending more time at home during lockdowns, “they were noticing every sneeze and sniffle that a pet cat or dog may have”.
But, also, on a sadder note, she reflects on how some clients would “simply need an excuse to have a chat or get out of the house for an hour”.
Unbeknownst to certain businesses around the country, they provided an outlet to many people through a very difficult time.
As head veterinary nurse Fionnuala Ann has, as she says herself, “a fair bit of responsibility.”
Alongside her day-to-day nursing duties, she has to organise the daily agenda.
From allocating duties to her nursing team and ensuring the vets know what surgeries are taking place, “it is all go”.
“There are no two days the same; your day could be all set out when suddenly, in comes an emergency case such as; a dog getting hit by a car or a poisoning case and straightaway, any plans are set aside.”
Veterinary nursing, like any profession, is continuously evolving. Because of this, she decided to take on further studies, while also working full-time.
Explaining her reasons, Fionnuala Ann says, “In 2019, I did my degree through Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland.”
“My qualification from years back was not recognised the same as the degrees that veterinary nurses were coming out of college with now. I needed to move with the times,” she adds.
A positive step
In her 18 years as a practising veterinary nurse, she agrees that she has seen numerous changes in the profession.
Most notably, she states, “Nurses are being recognised for their skills, and it is also being reflected in their pay.”
She says. “I can see that there is more respect for veterinary nurses now.”
“When I was training, we were expected to do a lot of menial work even though we had years of experience and a qualification behind us.”
“But thankfully, times and attitudes have changed.” She notes.
Fionnuala Ann is currently studying an online course in anaesthetics, an area of veterinary medicine that she is passionate about.
“You have to keep upskilling. Animal medicine is as fast-moving, if not faster at times, than human medicine.”
“We are constantly learning new techniques and being introduced to new drugs.”
To continue to practice legally and within the rules set out by the Veterinary Council of Ireland (VCI), veterinary nurses and vets must complete a set amount of Continuing Veterinary Education (CVE) courses.
These courses are run online, in-house and on college campuses around the country.
Amongst some of the most significant changes Fionnuala Ann has seen throughout her career, are the advancements in technology.
She discusses some of them here, “When I started practising, we used to develop our own x-rays in our in-house laboratory.”
“I really enjoyed the act of seeing the image come out and having to think about what you were doing to ensure you got a good image.”
“I have to admit that the digital versions are extremely quick and very good quality. Also, you can email them to another practice or specialist with ease.”
She continues, “Also available to us in the hospital labs are diagnostic machines ranging from blood testing machines and centrifuges to microscopes for investigating the presence of any parasites.”
She is quick to add that “no machine or technology can fully take the place of the trained vet or vet nurse.”
“Using your eyes, ears and hands while monitoring an animal under anaesthetic can never be replaced.”
“And you have to be able to read and interpret the results from any of the machines.”
When she gets any free time, Fionnuala Ann says she loves to, “chill out in her polytunnel”, where she grows a variety of organic vegetables and plants.
She enjoys going for country walks and takes part in the occasional meet-ups with fellow Landrover enthusiasts.
Advice for anyone considering veterinary nursing as a career
Commenting on any advice she would have for future veterinary nurses, she says, “She would strongly advise spending time in a veterinary clinic and perhaps doing an animal care course if you were not sure.”
As a final word on what it takes to be a successful veterinary nurse, she replied with one word, “patience”.
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