Meet Darci Palmer: The VTS Whose Inspirational Career Started Thanks to a Potbelly Pig
Inspiration is a visitor that can suddenly show up at your door, walk in, kick its feet up on the coffee table and put thoughts in your head. You’re never quite sure when to expect it. Yet soon, you’re finding all the means and mentors necessary to make it come to life.
So it seems in Darci Palmer’s career. She’s currently a Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS) at a private practice in Alabama. She also serves as executive secretary for the Academy of Veterinary Technicians in Anesthesia and Analgesia (AVTAA), mentoring vet techs who want to become certified in the anesthesia and analgesia specialty. She is admin for a hugely popular Facebook group called Veterinary Anesthesia Nerds (50K members!). And she is soon to start a teaching position at Tuskegee University.
But it all started in high school in Washington state, with a potbelly pig named Widget. And a local veterinarian who was her first mentor, helping her begin a career built on mentoring and being mentored.
The official story
Darci Palmer, LVT, VTS (Anesthesia & Analgesia), worked as a veterinary assistant in a mixed animal practice for eight years before becoming a credentialed veterinary technician in 2000. She graduated from Washington State University in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in animal science. Following graduation, she worked as a vet tech in an equine practice, then accepted a position as an anesthesia technician at Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in 2001. It was while she was at WSU that she developed a real passion for teaching and learning about all aspects of anesthesia. Following five years of clinical work specifically in anesthesia, she became certified as a Veterinary Technician Specialist (VTS) in Anesthesia in 2006.
Darci is a past president of the Academy of Veterinary Technician Anesthetists (AVTA) and serves on the exam committee. She has also served as the Credentials Committee chair and remains active with the application process each year. She is a member of NAVTA and serves on the Committee of Veterinary Technician Specialists (CVTS). She lectures at several local and national veterinary conferences.
The back story
So many credentials! So many acronyms! But looking at how it all began, that’s where we see inspiration first knocking on the door. “I always wanted to be involved in veterinary medicine. Ever since I was little that’s the only thing that I saw myself doing. When I was in high school there was a new vet that just opened up, and I had a potbelly pig that I raised from seven weeks old and I needed a vet for him.”
Yep, this is the aforementioned Widget.
“I showed up and I got to talking to the doctors about how I really was interested in this. They were like, ‘Well, you should just hang out whenever you want to.’ So after school, I would go there and hang out and help where I could. And that ended up turning into a part-time job for me. At the time, it was a mixed practice – both small and large.”
“The main doctor really had an interest in horses, and he planned on opening up his own equine hospital. In the midst of that, I graduated high school, ended up going to college, but I would come back during the summers and work for him – by then he had his equine hospital open. So I shifted gears and worked for him all through college. And then when I graduated college, I came back and he offered me a full-time job.”
Just so we’re tracking: Widget the pig and hanging around a new vet clinic in town led to horses and a full-time job working in an equine practice.
“I went to work at the equine hospital, and he encouraged me to become licensed as a veterinary technician. Before that time, I actually had not known anything about being a veterinary technician. When I went to college, my overall goal was to go to vet school – but I had a little too much fun on the college rodeo team for two years, my grades kind of took a bit of a dive – but I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. It was clear that I wasn’t going to get into vet school. When they offered me the chance to become a credentialed vet tech, I embraced it.”
Darci worked for him for about 10 years until he decided to move to Texas. “I thought, ‘Well, I have nowhere to go because this is all I’ve ever done.’”
But inspiration came this time from a friend who told her to apply for a position at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She did. “I basically told them, I’ll take any job you have, as long as it involves horses.” WSU countered with the fact that they really needed an anesthesia technician. Darci thought: Heck, no! Anesthesia scares the living daylights out of me.
“When I worked at the equine hospital, you learned as you went. You learned if it went wrong, you didn’t do that again. There wasn’t a lot of teaching, the why behind things. It was a lot of trial and error. I was trying to learn, but there wasn’t a lot of theory behind it.” But in fact, she had done anesthesia at the equine practice. She got hired. “Honestly, I think my background in horses and growing up around horses really was what gave me the upper hand in that interview.”
It wasn’t easy.
“I took that job and I spent the first two or three months going to the back hallway and just bawling my eyes out. It was the steepest learning curve that I had ever experienced in my life. But that was really where I fell in love with anesthesia. I attribute it to the amazing doctors and staff that were there. They instilled a love and a passion for learning and for teaching.”
At WSU, Darci found another mentor who is part of the reason she mentors so many today.
“One of the anesthesiologists took all of us technicians under her wing. She came in early; we would have technician rounds. Whenever we had a question, she would stop what she was doing, and she would take the time to explain it to us. It made it enjoyable. That’s what captivated me because I was in an environment where every single day was different, and I learned something new every day. I fell in love with it.”
Next stroke of inspiration: New specialties
One day the head anesthesiologist came by with an announcement about specialties – brand-new specialties. The first exam was to be administered in 2003. Darci didn’t qualify yet with enough hours. But she hung on to that announcement.
“I took that piece of paper and I was like, This is the goal that I’m going to work for and achieve. I was able to put together an application, then take the exam. I achieved my VTS in 2006.”
The difference a VTS can make
Darci told us the VTS process is designed to push a technician way past what they learn as a vet tech; with that come more responsibilities. “I think first what’s most important is that you develop a relationship with the DVM that you’re working closest with, because trust is always going to be something that is earned. It’s not just given.”
Darci continued about her working relationship with doctors: “It does take some time for trust to develop. But I know the doctor trusts my judgment to be able to calculate out the anesthesia drug protocols that we are going to use for patients. He knows that I am capable of looking at a patient’s file to know what drugs they’re on, understand the temperament of the patient, what elements need to be corrected in order to formulate a patient-specific anesthesia drug protocol. From that, I’m going to develop a protocol and then I’m going to get his approval. From my perspective, I have earned his trust and he knows that I understand what drugs I’m using. I understand what dosage I should be using. He trusts that I can do those calculations and I just need a verbal approval from him. Once I have that verbal, okay, that’s what we’re doing. Then we basically carry out the plan.”
Having a VTS who is planning and prepping for surgery frees the doctor up. The doctor doesn’t have to oversee everything and can be talking to clients, making phone calls, getting aspects of their day done with while the team is getting the patient ready for surgery.
With so much education and real-life experience behind her, we couldn’t resist asking if there are one or two cases that stand out. There are.
Darci told us about a little Westie dog in for an adrenalectomy. “It’s the case that is going perfectly textbook straight,” she said. “The vital parameters could not have been more perfect in this dog. And I remember thinking, Man, this is really good for all of the things that could go wrong. And then I happened to look at the surgeon and she was white as a ghost.”
Darci asked her, “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to faint.”
She looked up at Darci and said, “I just nicked the venae cavae. I’ve got my finger on it and I’m not really sure what to do.”
Darci’s response was swift. “I thought, Okay, this is go time.”
“Those are the moments that really test your ability as an anesthetist – to make sure that you are completely ready to handle and deal with anything that could unexpectedly arise. We called in the teams of people; they got other people scrubbed into surgery to assist the surgeon. The anesthesiologist came in to assist me and that dog rocked it out! You never even could tell that there was the potential for a ton of blood loss, because we just had a team of people that were ready to go. We had everything that we could possibly need already in the operating room ready to use if we needed it. And all we had to do was literally turn our backs, grab something off the gurney and put it to use.”
The clearest way to sum up the responsibilities of a VTS? “There’s a saying that anesthesia is 99% boredom, 1% panic. You want boredom. But that 1% of panic is what’s going to test your ability as an anesthetist. Are you ready to deal with the unexpected?”
Another case that stands out to Darci was a geriatric dog with a big liver mass. The surgeon was in the abdomen, figuring out where he was going to do the liver lobectomy. When the surgeon gently lifted up on the tumor, it was enough to rip the venae cavae. The patient lost 70% of his blood volume in a matter of minutes.
“It’s another example of a case where we were ready to go, because we knew that had a potential to happen. We did everything that we could, started all the emergency processes and got that dog blood. But it was one of those cases where, when I walked out, I thought, There’s no way this dog is going to live through the night. And I came in the next morning and that dog is standing and wagging his tail, like nothing happened!”
Again, just so we’re tracking: Darci is working in a practice and helping new VTS students become credentialed for the Academy. But there’s more. This time, it’s inspiration for all.
“Now that I am a VTS, it’s provided me a platform where I can go out and collectively bring people together with the interest in anesthesia classes – the Facebook group Veterinary Anesthesia Nerds, which is a way to just bring people together. Everyone benefits when we all share our knowledge together. You can take that back and channel that into your patient care. I love being part of those platforms that allow me to continually learn!”
Transitioning back to teaching
All of the learning, teaching, mentoring and practicing will come together in Darci’s next stop. Darci accepted a job at Tuskegee University, which will allow her to do clinical anesthesia as well as teaching.
With teaching, the big reward is seeing how excited and happy students get when they’re able to put what they’ve learned into action. “The things that really make me happy and warm my heart are when I’m telling students all of these things, but it’s easy for them to do it when I’m right there. I can assist.”
Just as Widget’s veterinarian invited her to hang around and learn, Darci makes sure her students are learning and can also put knowledge into action.
“I’ve had several of those moments where I’ve come in after a day off and a student or employee is really excited over the fact that they – for the very first time – were able to calculate all of the drugs on their own and got them all right. They intubated a patient for the first time. They did it completely on their own. And they were just thankful that I walked them through the process and now they can do it on their own and they feel good about doing it on their own. Those little things mean a lot because they’re learning and they’re trying and they’re doing, and my words are not just falling on deaf ears. I love those moments.”
Inspiration’s next stop: Tuskegee, Alabama.
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