Meet a Relief Vet – Dr. Jana Van Stee

It takes a certain type of person to dive headfirst both into relief work AND emergency – right after graduation.

Quickly developing an affinity for the intensity of critical care, Dr. Jana Van Stee allowed her veterinary career to lead the way.  She was hooked. The momentum kept up, and her adventures now span from Alaska to South Dakota to Oregon (and maybe Michigan).

She can hold her own in a snowstorm. She enjoys mountaineering.

She dabbles in pocket pet medicine.

And emergency medicine is her jam.

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Name your niche: large animal, small animal, pocket pets, and/or exotics? ER, GP, and/or shelter?

I practice small animal medicine exclusively, with a special interest in emergency medicine. Prior to transitioning to relief work, my main experience was in the emergency and critical care setting. I also dabble in small exotic mammal medicine—I’ve had guinea pigs in the past and enjoy working with pocket pets.

Everyone has a story – what’s yours? What inspired you to become a veterinarian?

I suppose I’m not unique in that my interest in vet med began at a very young age. My father is a small animal veterinarian and was a practice owner in New Jersey. I grew up fascinated by his clinic and inspired by his willingness to treat any species that walked, flew, or slithered in the door. The only career I ever seriously considered was veterinary medicine.

Emergency work was a bit more unexpected. My first full time job as a vet was at an ER, and I accepted mainly because of the geographic location. I got hooked on the adrenaline and intensity of emergency work, although I also enjoy the more thorough client education that general practice can allow.

Outside of the veterinary realm, what types of positions/professions have you been involved in?

I’ve been pretty much all vet med!

What roles have you had within the veterinary profession?

As I mentioned, my father was a practice owner. I grew up working in the kennels, then as an assistant later on. I have some vivid memories of scooping dog poop at the clinic during various snowstorms, when a fulltime employee couldn’t make it in.

After my first emergency veterinary job in Washington state, I moved to Alaska and worked at an emergency-only clinic there. My spouse is very mobile, and his work took us from there to South Dakota, which is where I’ve begun my relief work.

What states are you licensed in and/or states you are working to obtain licensure within?

Currently South Dakota, Alaska, and Oregon. I’d like to add Michigan, since I have several family members there.

You made the switch to relief practice. Why?
I have a few friends who worked relief and was intrigued by the scheduling flexibility they had. When my husband and I moved to South Dakota, I decided it was a perfect time to take the leap into full time relief. His work is seasonal, so relief work allows me to work hard during most of the year, then have time for road tripping during his off season.

Keeping it PG, what is your most memorable relief job?

As a brand-new grad, I actually did a few months of relief prior to starting my first full time job. I knew I would be moving out of the state within three months and decided that no one would hire a new grad for that short of a duration. The area I was in was severely undersupplied with relief vets, so I filled up my schedule pretty quickly. I was perhaps a little overconfident and booked a few shifts at an ER clinic in an isolated area. Two weeks after I graduated, I worked a forty-eight-hour emergency shift as a solo vet, with one technician to help. I did my first C section with the surgery textbook laid out next to the surgery table. Needless to say, I was pretty delirious by the time the weekend ended! I can’t say I recommend this approach for new grads, but the trial by fire approach did make every other job seem a little easier by comparison.

How do you feel that relief practice supports the veterinary profession as a whole?

Relief medicine is such an asset to the profession. Many veterinarians are overworked and burned out and having relief vets available allows better work-life balance for full time veterinarians. Many practices aren’t well staffed enough to cover a vacation or a maternity leave, and without relief vets, everyone suffers when one person is out.

Aside from watching 6-week-old kittens ricochet sideways during pouncing lessons, what are your favorite things about being a relief vet?

I love learning new techniques or approaches from other vets. I feel like interacting with a variety of different teams helps keep my medicine sharper and encourages me to continue to learn and grow professionally. Plus, I get to meet new people and hear their stories!

What are your least favorite things about being a relief vet? You can’t say nail trims – those are satisfying.

It can sometimes be frustrating to not be able to follow up on all my cases, or to find out what the resolution was. I enjoy building relationships with clients, and relief work can make this challenging. However, if I come back to the same practice several times, I can make lasting connections with the staff and other doctors, which is equally valuable.

What do you look for in a practice when deciding to cover shifts for them?

Geographic location is a big part of my decision-making process. Beyond that, I’m looking for a positive team environment, dedication to practicing quality medicine, and a commitment to patient safety and welfare.

Pathologically prepared or minimalist: what supplies or equipment do you bring with you on the job?

I travel pretty light. My main supplies are food—I’ll never show up to a shift without a packed lunch and a backpack full of snacks. Beyond that, my stethoscope and my phone (with my Plumb’s app!) are really the only requirements. I’ve also started to bring my own can of squeeze cheese for patients, which helps with making new fur friends!

Have you picked up any unique practice tips while being a relief vet? These could be related to medicine, workflow, practice organization, or anything really.

Good vets can’t be efficient without sufficient and well-trained staff. I’ve watched talented vets struggle to keep up with half the caseload of similarly competent colleagues, because they aren’t able or willing to delegate tasks. If you let your fantastic techs work to their full potential, you can treat more patients, and practice better medicine while you’re at it.

What advice would you give new relief vets? (Alternatively, what advice would you give someone who is thinking about being a relief vet?)

Being personable and positive is more important than almost anything else you can do. People will forgive accidental faux paus, or even actual mistakes, much more readily than they’ll ignore a bad attitude. And if you’re generally cheerful, the team you’re working with will be much happier to help you!

The world is reopening from the pandemic. How has this shift back towards normality affected your relief practice?

Practices are slowly moving away from curbside and back into a more traditional model of care. However, owners do seem more comfortable with drop-off appointments, which can make prolonged workups or add-on procedures work much more smoothly.

Aside from English, what language(s) do you speak?

Just English, sadly.

What are your hobbies/passions outside of work?

I’m an avid long distance runner and have been since middle school. Marathons are my favorite race, but after a string of injuries, I’ve also learned to appreciate just being able to get outside to run a few miles. Running keeps me sane. Anyone who knows me can attest that I’m a happier person if I’m able to get out and run regularly. Over the past few years, I’ve also come to appreciate hiking and mountaineering—living in Alaska made that almost a necessity.

One interest that aligns very well with relief work is traveling. My husband and I love to explore new places. One of the best feelings in the world is hitting the road with him, not knowing exactly where we’ll end up that night, or what adventures we’ll have during the day.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for providing a platform and a community for relief veterinarians…what a much-needed service!

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To contact or learn more about Dr. Jana Van Stee, click here.

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