The Good Old Days - Or Were They?

Sue Badger VN, Cert Ed, MBVNA, looked back at the history of veterinary nursing and the BVNA in an article published in the March 2005 edition of the VNJ.

It was recently brought to my attention that the British Veterinary Nursing Association is celebrating its fortieth year in 2005. The growth of the BVNA has by necessity gone hand in hand with the development of the veterinary nursing profession and it is perhaps pertinent at this point to review the history of both veterinary nursing and the organisation that exists to support the profession. I was asked to write this article as I am in a unique position to comment on the last few decades, due to the fact that I am one of a small band of V.N.s who qualified well before the end of the last century!

The first point that comes to mind is that the BVNA as such did not exist until 1985. Although the BVNA assumed its present title at its inauguration in 1965 it was forced to change this to the British Veterinary Nursing Auxiliaries Association the following year. 'The reason for this being that both the terms Nurse and Veterinary were protected by statute and charter. The qualification that we know today was in fact altered to Registered Animal Nursing Auxiliary (RANA) to take this into account and did not revert back to VN until the statute protecting the title Nurse expired.

The first RANA, Pamela Pitcher, qualified in 1963 and commented in an article written to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of the BVNA that at the inception of the training scheme a significant number of veterinary surgeons viewed the idea of qualified veterinary nurses with great suspicion! In fact Pamela quoted one as saying that the RCVS had "created a Frankenstein and would rue the day!" Far from doing that the RCVS and allied veterinary associations such as the BSAVA have come to respect and value the role played by the qualified VN. Indeed BSAVA played an instrumental role in the early development of veterinary nursing, as it was at the BSAVA Congress in 1962 that an unofficial Veterinary Nursing Committee was formed.

It is true to say that there were some enlightened veterinary surgeons who utilised their qualified nurses' training and allowed them a consequent degree of responsibility. A list of early supporters of veterinary nursing and the BANAA, as it was then known, would include Trevor Turner, Olifant Jackson and John Hodgman. Mr Hodgman was one of the driving forces behind the formation of a veterinary nursing association. And no record of BVNA's history would be complete without mention of Alastair Porter, the then Registrar of the RCVS who helped the original committee members of the embryonic association to define a constitution and elect its first council. Although the most senior role within the organisation was assumed by veterinary surgeons in the early days, as it began to find its feet, qualified veterinary nurses began to assume the mantle of President. The list of incumbents is too long to reproduce here but it includes people who worked tirelessly to promote the role of the BVNA as well as the status of its members and veterinary nurses as a whole.

When I qualified as a RANA in 1976, the veterinary environment was very different to that of today. In those days farming was not in its present economic state and there were many more mixed practices. One of the reasons that James Herriott's books resonated with me was not just that they were a good read but also because he wrote about an existence that contained elements that I recognised in practice all those years later! I was roped in to round up cattle for Tb testing and had to stand by with the Narcan just in case the vet injected himself with Large Animal Immobilon when castrating a colt! Suture material consisted of catgut and nylon and instruments were boiled in the steriliser. The veterinary surgeon was viewed as a pillar of the community along with the doctor and the teacher. He, and the vet generally was male at that time, was the nucleus of the veterinary practice and all other staff including qualified nurses were generally described as 'lay staff.' The general public were not familiar with the green uniform of the qualified RANA and although a nursing qualification existed, holders of that qualification were no more legally entitled to nurse veterinary patients than the man or woman in the street. The first step towards legal recognition did not come about until the amendment to the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act.

Merchandising of pet food and the myriad other things that the pet owner can purchase in most veterinary practice waiting rooms nowadays was frowned upon in the seventies and early eighties as being rather unprofessional. Prescriptions diets consisted of Obesity & Nephritis Diet, both tinned, as dried food was non-existent. Nurses were not considered sufficiently trained to have their own clinics and the nurses' uniform was supplemented by a petersham or elastic belt, apron, cuffs and in some cases a nurse' cap. Male veterinary nurses were unheard of and wearing tunic and trousers instead of a dress in spite of the formers greater practicality was still a thing of the future. I could also comment that there was a greater emphasis upon Common Sense than Health & Safety and COSHH but I would be showing my age and I recognise that comments of that nature are just a precursor to prefacing sentences with 'in my day' and talk of 'the younger generation!'

The annual BANAA/BVNA Congress was the professional highpoint of the year for most nurses. I well remember my first one. It was held in the Russell Hotel in central London and I was most impressed by one of the speakers, Leslie Hall informing us that his nurses always scraped up and measured any vomitus or diarrhoea passed by patients in order to ascertain exact fluid loss! Subsequent congresses in those early years were held at the Berkshire College of Agriculture and were a great success both commercially and socially. It should be remembered that BCA as it was fondly known, was the first College to provide a full-time course for trainee veterinary nurses under the tutorship of the renowned Heather Briggs and her colleagues. I spent six months there as a student in 1975 and enjoyed every minute, apart from the Saturday morning tests! I note from the prospectus that tuition fees were £20 per term whilst RCVS examination fees were £3.15 for both the Preliminary and the Final exams, as they were then known. Both examinations included a practical element and all candidates had to travel to the RVC at Camden Town. I well remember memorising autoclave cycles on the train journey into London and then being thrilled to be asked by the examiner to recite them in the exam itself! It should also be borne in mind that veterinary nursing examiners at that time were exclusively veterinary surgeons The advent of VN examiners and structured practical tasks was some distance away.

I view today's Veterinary Nurses' professional frustrations with respect to status, autonomy and regulation with a lot of sympathy but I have the luxury of being able to place our present position into an historical context and appreciate how far things have in fact advanced. Compare our progress with that of our 'sister' profession, (with apologies to the male nurses in both professions.) To gain some perspective we should note that Florence Nightingale opened her training school for nurses in 1860 and the British Nurses' Association (now Royal British Nurses Association) was founded in 1887, one of its main aims being the state registration of nurses. This was only achieved in 1919, when the Nurses' Registration Act finally became law. The struggle for the Act was long and hard; it took and five Select Committees before Royal Assent was granted and it was placed on the Statue Book. Today's qualified veterinary nurses are at the forefront of a similar mechanism of change, one in which the BVNA are determined to play an active role. I look back at the last thirty years of my professional career, and beyond that to the introduction of the training scheme and the advent of the BVNA, and I can't help thinking that we owe a debt of gratitude to the many people whose hard work and dedication to the veterinary nursing profession and its representative organisation have enabled us to come so far.

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