Gateshead vet nurse Helen has never looked back since changing careers aged 31.
Helen Spry, RVN CertVN ECC, is a vet nurse at Vets Now’s busy Gateshead clinic. In this Q&A Helen tells how a career change after a spell in the army and then a job she hated brought her to a role she loves.
You’ve certainly had an interesting working life before vet nursing. Tell us about your different jobs.
I started as a receptionist in a car garage when I left school and during my eight years in the motor trade, I joined the Territorial Army. I really enjoyed it and had the opportunity to do full-time reserve service and went into recruitment for the TA. While in the military, I trained as a driving instructor and did that for a while when I left. I absolutely hated it, stuck in the car all day, every day driving the same roads.
And why did you choose veterinary nursing?
I’ve always had dogs and loved animals and although I hadn’t thought of it as a career, I spoke to a friend who was a head nurse at my local practice. I was a bit older and wiser than when I left school with no real idea of what I wanted 14 years earlier. We arranged for me to go in and do some work experience and within a week, I knew I absolutely loved everything about it and the feeling of making a difference.
Where did you train?
I was 31 when I started, so it’s never too late to do something you love. I was lucky that the practice was looking to take on a student nurse and I had funding from the military that paid for my training. I did it over three years, with the coursework at college in Newcastle, qualifying as an RVN.
I was 31 when I started, so it's never too late to do something you love.
And what led you to want to work in ECC?
After about six months just in the first opinion practice, I was getting a little bit bored, and I spoke to a vet who did locum work at Vets Now. She made it sound like something I might really like, so I got in touch and was offered the chance to go in and do a couple of shifts shadowing the nurses at Gateshead. I really liked it and it was the Nursing Edge programme that really made joining possible as I still only had a few months’ experience after qualifying.
Tell us about Nursing Edge.
It was an eight-week programme for newly qualified nurses, giving you all the experience and knowledge you’d need to become a sole-charge nurse. There was a group of us and we had a week at the HQ in Dunfermline and then six weeks in practice doing shadow shifts. You went from just following the nurse at first to the nurse following you and checking what you were doing at the end. And the final week was consolidation and ensuring any questions were answered. It was incredibly detailed and well planned and you really felt you knew just what you’d find in clinic, everything from the ultrasound to the machines you’d be using for blood gases.
And what about being prepared for the cases?
Again, that was very comprehensive. It went through the types of things we might see, like a cat with a blocked bladder, a dog with a foreign body and GDV.
Did you feel ready and supported at the end of it?
Yes. I was a little nervous on my first shift, but I was excited as well and the team around always gives you confidence. And because I felt I knew my way around the clinic and the equipment, I felt more relaxed than I might have expected. It was such a useful grounding, explaining exactly why you do certain things and I’d definitely recommend it.
You’ve been with Vets Now for six years now. How has it been?
I still love not knowing what’s coming through the door and that no two cases are the same. I love that I get to do some schedule three work, like stitch-ups. I’m passionate about blood transfusions and I get to do that a lot. While it can be high pressured, it’s a very rewarding environment. Everyone here has the same ethos, we’re all passionate about what we do. We work as a team and it’s a family environment. You’re thinking on your feet all the time and constantly learning.
I was a little nervous on my first shift, but I was excited as well and the team around always gives you confidence. And because I felt I knew my way around the clinic and the equipment, I felt more relaxed than I might have expected.
And have you continued to learn?
I just completed the CertVN ECC in September, which I really enjoyed. You have to go away and read and study and I’m sure it has made me a better nurse because of the depth of knowledge.
Is there anything else you’ve gone on to do?
I have started doing some remote nursing. I work from home one or two days a week, supporting the call handlers if they have a query. Owners who don’t necessarily have to come into clinic but need to speak to someone can chat to one of the nurses. If we feel they do need to go into the clinic, we can talk them through it.
Do you still get satisfaction from making that difference you spoke about?
My favourite bit is still handing over that animal in the morning that is so much better. Seeing the happy animal and overjoyed owners gets me every time.
How is the work-life balance?
What I love about the job is the lifestyle it gives me. I’ll maybe do two or three nights a week and you ensure you get a good sleep between shifts and prepare your meals in advance, so you don’t have to think about them. Of course, I then get the rest of the time off to play with my dogs and horses.
Your four dogs must really keep you busy.
One is a rescue I brought home from work, I’ve got my old one and her niece, plus a puppy I bred last year. It was the first-time litter and when we scanned at work, we thought there might be about eight puppies. I nearly died when she had 14. I found 13 brilliant homes and decided to keep the last one. The rescue came into work really poorly at nine weeks and when it turned out he needed a home, I just had to give him one. They’re a handful, but I love my time with them away from work.