It was a matter of time, really.
One cannot speak of veterinarians without including their counterparts, their partners in crime, their two-legged Swiss Army knives. In the often-tough team sport of vet med, we help keep one another’s equilibrium steadfast. Veterinary technicians, veterinary nurses – while a bit more elusive than veterinarians – also exist in the relief world, you just have to know where to look.
Sasha Zitnick is one such technician who keeps her cool, loves ER, and works to inspire others to see the value of the relief world. That, and she is bringing back the fanny pack.
Everyone has a story – what’s yours? What inspired you to become a technician/nurse?
I started working at an animal hospital in Miami at the age of barely 16 as a kennel technician (completely by mistake might I add). I was one of those people always willing to lend a hand and am a sponge for knowledge. Within 6 months, I had progressed enough to be a veterinary assistant/technician. I’ve loved animals all my life and had wanted to be a veterinarian since before I could remember.
What roles have you had within the veterinary profession? How about outside of this industry?
I’ve worked in many general practices, specialty hospitals, dental specialty, and laboratory, but emergency and critical care has my heart! I have also started my own relief business based in Florida (but have traveled as far as Montana for relief!) where I offer advice to other veterinary technicians trying to begin their relief journey. I do creative consulting for veterinary practices and technician training on the fly!
What made you switch to relief practice?
Honestly, relief technicians weren’t a common thing in my area when I started. No one had done strictly relief, and with a shortage in veterinary staff in the emergency hospitals in my area, and the utter exhaustion from being 7 months pregnant with my 3rd child and working 16-hour overnights, I decided to take a leap of faith in the hopes of starting a movement where technicians can utilize their skills and be compensated fairly for all that they do while also achieving work/life balance. We all tend to struggle with that aspect.
Keeping it PG, what is your favorite relief job story?
I was working alongside one of my oldest and dearest DVM friends (shout out to Rhiannon Lewis!) at an ER, doing relief there for the first time. We had an obese 108 pound lab come in with a foreign body located in the colon. After some debating, we decided to try giving a few enemas first instead of going straight to surgery as we didn’t want to cut into the colon (naturally). After the third enema, our shy pooper was refusing to give us the goods, so I suggested we sing to him. The practice manager and lead tech on duty happened to walk out outside and witness us in full Salt-N-Pepa choreography singing “Push It” while our large lab watched us in utter horror. Much to my dismay, they joined in on the production, the dog never pooped, and we pulled a sock out of his colon in surgery, the end.
How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?
I feel that it allows for open conversation on change. Veterinary medicine as a whole changes constantly. Relief practice allows for a hospital to be fully staffed when they need to. Hospital trends change constantly. It allows for people like me and many others that cannot seem to stay at one place for too long, the freedom to be able to make a livable wage without having to settle with one clinic or one style of medicine. Also, there just aren’t enough of us on the work force to staff the demand of every hospital full-time.
What are your favorite things about being a relief tech/nurse?
My favorite thing about being a relief veterinary technician is the element of surprise. Every clinic is as individual as a fingerprint – they all operate differently and possess different work dynamics, so it’s always new and exciting. You get to go in with a fresh set of eyes and help the staff who has probably been short-staffed for a while before you came in. You get to meet some really amazing characters and potentially inspire others to become relief technicians as well!
Techs/nurses are known for their “Mary Poppins pockets” that seem to contain the world. What supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job?
When I arrive to any hospital, I have my oversized “relief bag”. That bag contains my entire life, including my calendar with all my availability for the next 6 months to a year. My utility belt has bandage scissors in multiple sizes, a roll of 1-inch waterproof tape, a pair of hemostats, and at least 2 pens and sharpies. I can’t tell you how much time my Batman utility belt saves me from picking things up off the floor when they’ve fallen out of my pocket. Also, I have admittedly probably stabbed myself a few dozen times from having bandage scissors in my pockets. Save yourself the heartache, get a fanny pack! They are back in style, I promise!
What are your least favorite things about being a relief tech/nurse?
I think the hardest thing about being a tech in general is the compassion fatigue and burnout. It affects all of us at least once in our lives. I struggle to watch other technicians and vet assistants being paid less than what they are worth and having to work 2 or 3 jobs to be able to afford to live. I struggle watching so many of my colleagues battle imposter syndrome. I also thoroughly dislike the lack of respect or understanding for what we do on a daily basis.
What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?
I like getting a general understanding of what I would be doing and what is expected of me while I fill that roll. I’ve come to learn that things run a lot smoother when expectations are laid out before agreeing to start with that hospital. If you don’t know what you want, then how do I know if I’m doing my job?
Follow-up to the above: do word-of-mouth observations and/or online reviews factor into your decision to cover shifts?
Not usually. Some of the most highly regarded clinics that I’ve come to help in turn out to be the most toxic workplaces with the worst culture. I try to keep an open mind and refrain from looking at reviews so I can make my own mind up about the place.
Have you picked up any unique practice tips while working relief? These could be related to medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really.
Keeping a level head in a stressful situation – that ultimately has to be my biggest piece of advice. You are ultimately working in a whole new environment with people you’ve never met before. It can be a bit overwhelming at times when you are switching from one extreme to another, and you might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But remember you are there for your patients and to support the hospital one task at a time. Make sure you come up for air every so often.
What advice would you give new relief techs/nurses? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief tech/nurse?)
The best advice I can give any newcomer relief technician is to stay flexible and learn to adapt. A lot of us become so used to doing things a certain way because “it’s what we’ve always done”, but that attitude doesn’t always work when you are filling in for a hospital that does things a bit differently. If you don’t know how to do something, then just ASK. If you’re not comfortable with a certain skill, work at it until you are!
How has the global pandemic affected your relief work?
Although I was busier than I had ever been during the pandemic, I chose to take a step back from consulting and stayed predominantly in one clinic so I didn’t run the risk of contracting the virus early on and potentially spreading it to multiple clinics.
What states do you currently work within? Any other states in your sights?
My home life keeps me pretty occupied these days, so traveling out of Florida becomes a bit trickier. Although, I’m always up for an adventure!
Aside from English, what language(s) do you speak?
I speak Spanish fluently.
What are your hobbies/passions outside of work?
I have the beginnings of a small farm at home. I also have the incessant need to always be in motion. What is the next big step for me? How can I improve myself and my career? How can I be a better advocate for other technicians?
Anything else you’d like to share?
I hope to inspire others to follow a more unconventional route to live their lives and continue to work in a field they are passionate about. I’m looking forward to seeing how our field grows and evolves.
To learn more about or to contact Sasha, click here.