New charity raising funds to put more veterinary workers in field
By Bruce Fessier
The biggest obstacle Scott Buchanan has had to overcome as a veterinary assistant at the Cat Clinic in Cathedral City is all the clients wearing masks these past two years.
Buchanan has been deaf since age 7. He communicates by reading lips. So, when people wear masks, it’s like having a Zoom conversation on mute.
“I just deal with it the best way I know how,” said Buchanan, speaking clearly and articulately. “I explain, ‘Please put the mask down.’ A customer was ambivalent about putting it down and I had to explain, ‘I can’t understand you. I need to be able to look at you.’ It’s an impediment to my need to communicate because (most people) are not fluent in sign language.”
Buchanan, 50 of Palm Springs, is a recent graduate of a College of the Desert Partnership and Community Education (PaCE) course training veterinary assistants. He was placed in a “externship” with the Cat Clinic, run by Dr. Rebecca Diaz, and then hired to help mitigate the overwhelming demand for local veterinary services.
Diaz and other desert veterinarians say the pandemic has led to a crisis in veterinary care.
“It was always busy but, ever since the pandemic it’s been incredibly busy,” said Diaz. “A lot of animals were adopted during the pandemic and both dogs and cats got a lot more services than they normally would have because people were paying more attention to them. They were home with them all day.”
It also was difficult to find employees willing to come into an office and risk COVID-19 exposure. That’s beginning to change. Diaz said one former employee returned two months ago. Another who worked for Diaz in Guam recently followed her to the Cat Clinic.
Diaz also gets vet assistants from programs such as the PaCE veterinary assistant career certification course, taught remotely and/or in PaCE classrooms in a lower level of the Palm Desert Mall. Several veterinary assistant courses can be found online, but PaCE offers remote live instructors guiding hands-on experiences. PaCE is considering a return to in-person classes next season.
“We’ve had interns probably for five or six years and we’ve hired a few of the people,” she said. “It works out OK. If people love animals and they’re good with people, they certainly can be taught the skills they need.”
The quarterly PaCE course provides the veterinary service skills the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) deems essential, including bathing and grooming, preparing for surgeries and providing after care, laboratory procedures, record keeping and customer service, including assuaging clients’ grief.
PaCE places high school graduates into externships after completing 150 hours of instructor-led training through weekly classes spread out over more than six months. They get real-life experience at facilities including the Cat Clinic, the Banning Veterinary Hospital ER and the VCA Desert Animal Hospital in Palm Springs, which PaCE director Veronica Izurieta says funnels the most students into vet assistant positions.
The job pays only $12-$15 an hour and the PaCE course costs $3,195. But scholarships for students seeking local careers in veterinary services are becoming available through the nonprofit Amy’s Purpose. The charity, founded by author and McCallum Theatre publicist DeAnn Lubell, is raising funds to pay course tuitions with a benefit concert and reception celebrating veterinary workers, titled “Pet Love and Rock & Roll,” Sept. 17 in the Palm Springs Art Museum. Tickets go on sale April 13 at the Annenberg box office.
Buchanan was interested in a veterinary services career, but he wanted a taste of the work before taking advanced classes that could be challenging for a deaf person. He has an associate of arts degree, which is a prerequisite for a veterinary technician class learning to assist in surgeries. But in-person courses for vet technicians aren’t available in the desert.
“I would go for more study if it were in person, rather than online,” Buchanan said. “It (remote learning) is a challenging education for me.”
After two weeks of working part-time at the Cat Clinic, Buchanan was itching to learn more. He had trouble restraining a traumatized cat a day before meeting a reporter in March and said, “I hope to have more training.
“For the most part, I do a lot of cleaning,” he said. “I have done a vaccine, a catheter draw, a nail clip. I have observed two surgeries where they do a neuter or a spay. I have observed an X-ray. For the most part, they do the work and I am more of an observer, not being experienced.”
Buchanan grew up in upstate New York with pet dogs and birds. He was looking for new experiences, perhaps a new career path, when an advisor from the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation suggested he take a PaCE course in billing and coding. He had been working at Postal Palm Springs but switched to the veterinary assistant program to challenge himself in customer relations and possibly satisfy some spiritual needs.
So far, working with sick or injured cats has seemed fulfilling.
“I have my foot in the door and I have no complaints,” he said. “We just have to do the best we can because we’re in a pandemic. Even though we don’t have our masks on, we’re not out of the pandemic.
“Positive energy, positive vibes. I try to have a good outlook on life, despite the pandemic.”
Becoming a vet assistant
College of the Desert Partnership and Community Education offers a Veterinary Assistant Certification course with remote live instruction 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays. The next quarterly course starts April 30. Tuition: $3,195. Registration: https://codpace.asapconnected.com/#CourseGroupID=16584
Scholarships: The nonprofit Amy’s Purpose is raising funds to pay PaCE tuitions with a benefit concert titled “Pet Love and Rock & Roll,” featuring Kyuss co-founder John Garcia and his Band of Gold plus Songwriters Hall of Famer Billy Steinberg with a singer and small combo from L.A. performing Steinberg hits such as “Like A Virgin,” “True Colors,” “Falling Into You,” “Alone” and “Eternal Flame,” 8 p.m. Sept. 17, Annenberg Theater, Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Pre-show wine & light hors d’oeuvres reception celebrating local veterinarians and animal activist Lori Weiner, 6:45 p.m. upstairs. Tickets $50-$250 as of April 13. Best seats half off for veterinarians.