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Overnight vet techs help after-hours

Have you ever wondered what happens at the Dumb Friends League when the lights go out and the parking lot clears? When the halls are empty and the voices fade?

Perhaps no one knows better than the League’s overnight vet techs, Melissa Pettipas and Theresa Crotty, who assess, triage, treat, and – most importantly – love on the animals while the rest of the city sleeps. “The nighttime is a beast of its own,” said Melissa, who has been an overnight tech with the League for two and a half years. “I live in controlled chaos because I deal with the aftermath of everything every day.”

“Controlled,” as Melissa puts it, is the keyword, made possible only by the support and collaboration of the entire vet services team. At the beginning of each 4:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, the overnight tech joins the daytime veterinarians for rounds where they learn about active cases, including hospitalized and post-op patients. “A lot of the overnight role is critical care,” Melissa said.

Both techs credit their emergency backgrounds to their love of working overnight. Melissa began her vet tech career as a receptionist at a small private practice about 16 years ago. There, she was cross-trained in emergency medicine and eventually hired as a night assistant. As Melissa continued to grow and diversify her tech experience, swing shifts and one-on-one time with the animals after hours became her new norm, and she ultimately found her calling as a night tech at the League.

Similarly, Theresa worked in general veterinary practice for nearly a decade. In fact, in addition to serving as a weekend night tech at the League, she is also a practice lead technician at another general practice in Denver. Looking to add shelter medicine to her experience, Theresa joined the League in December 2020. For Theresa, the position sounded interesting, different, and challenging. “I’m all about that,” she said.

“It takes a special person to work nights,” said Melissa. “We’re kind of wacky, and we’re kind of bizarre, but we’re a lot of fun!”

That positive energy is not only critical to caring for the animals, but also to finding solutions to unexpected challenges like the ever-exciting night kennels. Theresa recalled a few of her most memorable encounters, including ones with a blue macaw, a betta fish in a Pepsi cup, and, not to be outdone, 15 rats scampering around a dog kennel. “There has been so much to see – so much to figure out in the moment!” she said.

Theresa Crotty
Theresa Crotty

On top of tending to hospitalized patients, the overnight techs also perform nightly reviews throughout the shelter. Reviews may include post-op exams and managing infections ranging from upper respiratory infections (URIs) to gastrointestinal (GI) issues. Additionally, Melissa manages ringworm cases and other fungal conditions, which can surge with a high volume of animals in the shelter (as the League is currently experiencing).

While these routine checks make up a large chunk of the overnight shift, emergency triage can make things unpredictable. Whereas an entire team may take on these emergencies during regular work hours, the overnight tech may be solely responsible for intake and beginning supportive treatments (such as wound assessment, X-rays, in-house bloodwork, and IV fluid therapy). In the meantime, the on-call veterinarian will advise and delegate a treatment plan. “It’s learning how to be independent but having the support of the on-call doctor when we need guidance,” shared Theresa. “Oh, how I enjoy those 1 a.m. phone calls!”

While Melissa works with an assistant 50% of the time, she also enjoys flying solo. “It’s kind of its own little emergency room, but I get to do it myself, which, for me, is very enjoyable,” she remarked. That said, assistants also serve as a welcome second set of hands during busy nights and refreshing company on quieter shifts.

Although some nights can be challenging, Melissa always seems to find the positive. “Even the difficult cases can be rewarding,” she said. “Sometimes, if they’re not necessarily rewarding, they’re learning experiences. They’ve helped me grow as a tech, in terms of caseloads I’ve seen in my career. It’s really helped round me out.”

One animal who sticks with Melissa on the tough nights is Raisin. During her nightly check-ins with post-op animals, Melissa noticed that Raisin – a tiny, adult black cat – wasn’t faring well. “She was on her side, unable to stand and very, very cold,” Melissa said. “She wasn’t mentally [right]. She was very dull and very sad. She was declining.”

Melissa immediately began aggressive treatment, placing a catheter IV in Raisin and beginning heat therapy. After stabilizing the patient, Melissa’s shift ended, and responsibilities were passed to the daytime vet services team. “I didn’t know how she was after I left,” said Melissa.

But when she returned the next day, she received more than just a happy outcome. “I was met by her foster parent, who is one of our top foster parents here,” Melissa exclaimed. “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘You saved her life! I heard what happened – thank you!’” Raisin made it through the night because Melissa noticed something was not right and jumped into action. “The foster’s reaction was so genuine and heartfelt. That’s why I’m here.”

Overnight techs work closely with the foster team. Many of the pets in foster care are either young enough that they are still struggling to thrive or have underlying health issues. These volatile conditions can turn into emergencies quickly, so on-call foster staff will often enlist the expertise of the overnight tech to assess any worrisome situations. Melissa and Theresa are critical resources when these occasions arise.

When asked what her favorite part about being an overnight vet tech was, Melissa shared the story of a goldendoodle who suffered severe burns after chewing through an electrical cord. “I would go sit with her in her kennel on my lunch breaks, and she would put her head on my shoulder,” she said. “Being able to offer that kind of comfort to an animal who’s scared or in need is a very beneficial part of what vet services as a whole does.”

Melissa summarized her passion for the overnight vet tech position as follows: “I got into the industry to work with animals, and night is really all about the animals. That’s what I’ve always wanted out of everything.”

“We are truly a team,” added Theresa. “It’s not about what you can prove or what you can do on your own. It’s about how we can help these animals together today and how many more we can help the next day and the next.”

National Veterinary Technician Week is Oct. 17-23 this year. Melissa and Theresa are just two of the vet techs we celebrated in honor of the amazing, lifesaving work they do at the League.

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