Going to the Dogs

Veterinary Tech Program, based at the Redmond campus, a benefit to community animals

Veterinary Technician Student
COCC Veterinary Technician Student

COCC launched its Associate of Applied Science Veterinary Technician (Vet Tech) program in 2013, one of only two in Oregon. At its helm is Beth Palmer, a certified veterinary technician turned professor, with 13 years of experience in private practice and shelter medicine. When I met Palmer this past December, she seemed the perfect balance of passion and poise. I could imagine her holding the attention of a class and calming a nervous animal with equal ease. It's not surprising that even among animal handlers, Palmer is known as the "Cat Whisperer."

Palmer took the reins of the program in December of 2013, and has since moved it to Redmond and launched two cohorts into the workforce. Together with Medical Director Dr. Cindy Elston, she overhauled the curriculum. "We started with a 55 percent national exam pass rate, so we revised the curriculum and achieved an 80 percent on our last cohort," she says. "That's normal with new programs, though. The American Veterinary Medical Association provides a list of subjects to teach, but they're pretty broad." With some tweaks, they hope the next cohort will close in on 100 percent.

But what is a veterinary technician? Well, it changes by the minute. They are dental, X-ray, surgical, anesthesia and laboratory technicians, treatment nurses, phlebotomists and client care specialists that work with animals and people. The fields they can choose are as countless as their duties, ranging from private practice and zoos to the Iditarod and caring for animals on Hollywood sets. Students may also work for the USDA or Army, act as supply reps or teach. "There are 13 specializations," explains Palmer. Although both veterinarians and techs work with animals, veterinarians focus on diagnosing and performing surgeries, while techs carry out daily treatments.

"We're big on two things: figuring out how students can benefit and how animals can benefit."

COCC's Technology Education Center on Redmond's campus houses the program's classroom, while the hands-on training facility is five minutes away, behind BrightSide Animal Center. "I have students from Madras, Prineville, Bend, La Pine, Fossil, Powell Butte and Redmond," says Palmer. Whether students work in the classroom or perform rotations at the training site, the principles of their courses are constant. "We're big on two things: figuring out how students can benefit and how animals can benefit," explains Palmer.

The program also emphasizes interactive learning. For Anatomy & Physiology, Elston has students build muscles on model cat skeletons out of clay and examine four plastinated cat cadaversliterally, real cats turned plasticwhich allow repeated dissections. On the left side of the lecture room looms a horse skeleton shipped from Germany. "Obviously, we don't feed him enough!" jokes Palmer. For one safety demonstration, Palmer arranges their clinic with numerous code violations, then unleashes her 24 students to fix the errors.

One nerve-wracking skill students must master is phlebotomy. To protect them, and their animal patients, Palmer progresses from foam rollers with fake blood and cloth "skin," to rubber dummy legs, and finally to "Jerry" and "Fluffy"dog and cat models that can be intubated, have blood drawn, and mimic breathing and heart rate. "We always practice on stuffed animals and models before the animal," says Palmer. "With the technology we have today, there's no reason to poke an animal until you're skilled. I wouldn't want to be someone's pincushion!"

The Vet Tech training facility includes a radiography department, laboratory, surgery room and lounge. The sprawling main area of their 10,000-square-foot facility serves many functions. On the day I visited, it was bisected by a line of shiny moveable kennels. Along the left wall are doors to the surgery room and lab, numerous cabinets, and a dental cleaning station. On the other side of the kennels, partitions can be erected to create consultation rooms or cleared entirely for large animals to visit. Later, students tour ranches for field experience with horses, cows, llamas, pigs, sheep and other large animals. And in addition to the usual dogs, cats and birds, they cover exotics like mice, rats, rabbits, lizards and snakes. During her externship, one student even treated a hedgehog with a head cold.

In 2018, the program will institute a selective admissions process, and someday Palmer wants to expand to yearly enrollment. The number of animals and staff available will be assessed in that decision. Right now, they have two full-time faculty (Palmer and Elston), and three part-timers: Dr. Sarah Bird (large animals), Dr. Ashley Portmann (Pharmaceutical Math) and Certified Veterinary Technician Kelsey Penn (Veterinary Anatomy & Physiology, Animal Nursing Lab). Enrollment expansion would necessarily reflect an expansion in investment too. Before a decision is made, the Vet Tech program will undergo an academic review, evaluating strengths, weaknesses and what they need for success.

No matter what, they can trust the vital support of their Central Oregon community. "The veterinary community welcomed us with open arms," remarks Palmer, recounting how touched she has been by the dedicated volunteers at their shelter partners: the Humane Society of Central Oregon (HSCO), Three Rivers Humane Society and BrightSide Animal Center. "We wouldn't be here without their supply of patients," she says. "In return, we provide free services for their animals. It really is a community effort." During COCC's most recent surgery rotation, they spayed, neutered and performed dental cleanings on 73 shelter animals. The Vet Tech program also partners with more than 30 vet clinics for student externships, where they gain 360 hours of real-world experience. Veterinarians get an extra pair of hands and many students are hired after graduation.

Over last summer, Palmer worked with three of her students at Bend Equine and another four while volunteering at a feral cat clinic in September. "I was so proud of them!" she says. "To see them pass the national exam and find work in the veterinary field in our community, that's the most satisfying part of my job." Another former student, Kelsey Penn, graduated with honors, landed her dream job with HSCO and teaches part-time for her alma mater. "Our program is committed to training the next generation of veterinary technicians," says the Cat Whisperer, "providing the best education possible so our students can provide the best care possible to the animals in the community."

Written by Emily Woodworth (This article previously appeared in the Spring '17 edition of Legacies magazine)