Peanut was having trouble with her ears. A pitbull-labrador retriever mix with big bright eyes, she had been scratching at them frequently, and shaking her head in distress. Now she was wriggling a little anxiously as Joshua Malouin, V15, described what he saw as he examined her, and Paula Michado, a rising senior in the Veterinary Assisting program at Worcester Technical High School, comforted her even as she held her in place.
“Aural hematomas,” blood blisters, called out Malouin to clinic director Dr. Greg Wolfus, V98, who stood slightly back, watching the students work.
“Treatment?” asked Wolfus.
“They’re not too big,” replied Malouin, peering in close looking for mites. “We should take some swabs, and put her in a head cone, so the scratching won’t make them worse.”
“Sounds good,” said Wolfus. “Let’s do it.”
The Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic opened in May, bringing high-quality affordable care to underserved communities in the Worcester area. A partnership between the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and Worcester Technical High School, the clinic is inside the high school campus on Green Hill, just a few minutes from downtown Worcester. Professional students at the veterinary school and high-school students in the Veterinary Assisting program work and learn together as they provide hands-on care.
“The Tufts at Tech clinic demonstrates the Cummings approach to active citizenship at all levels, in teaching and learning, delivering the highest-quality of care, and serving the needs of our communities,” explained Dr. Deborah Kochevar, Dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Years in the making, the clinic was the idea of Cummings School faculty members Dr. Liz Rozanski and Dr. John Rush. They envisioned a student-run primary care practice that would assist underserved pets and clients of limited means. Clinic clientele includes qualified residents of the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA).
The clinic has also grown out of the school’s partnership with Tisch College. For years, Tisch College has supported veterinary students’ Pet Wellness and Vaccination Clinics for low-income residents at WHA sites, and the Tufts at Tech clinic greatly expands the range of services available to this group.
“This clinic is a great example of how Tufts schools apply active citizenship,” said Nancy Wilson, Dean ad interim of Tisch College. “Tufts at Tech engages Tufts students and high school students in caring both for animals and their human companions. In doing so, the Cummings School has built something truly remarkable, educating the veterinarians of tomorrow about the needs of underserved companion pets, while serving the community needs of today.”
For example, while caring for animals students may identify medical needs of people as well.
“About thirty kids get lead poisoning in the Worcester area every year,” said Wolfus. “If you live in a house with lead paint, a lot of times problems will show up first in a pet. We have a partnership with UMass Medical and Ronald McDonald mobile care to get lead tests for families with pets with high lead levels.”
Other effects may be less dramatic, but can be critical in a person’s life.
“There’s a growing body of research on the benefits of companion animals to people’s health,” said Wolfus. “People with pets tend to have lower blood pressure, be more active, and report less depression. For an older person, walking the dog might be the only thing that’s getting them out of the house and moving around every day. And no matter what, a pet is hugely important to the person who owns it, and that’s something that basically never gets discussed in political debates about lower-income people.”
In just a short time the clinic has begun providing a high volume of care to their underserved clientele.
“The goal is to be handling 200 cases per month,” said Wolfus. “The first month we had 104, the second 139, the third month 167. We’re now averaging between six and twelve a day, with one surgery, and it’s definitely increasing.”
Wolfus added that having high school students involved has strengthened the reach of the new clinic.
“Most of the Tech students are from the same neighborhoods as our clients,” he explained. “They become natural ambassadors. The ideal I want to teach them is that the number of dollars a person has doesn’t determine the care an animal deserves.”
The Veterinary Assisting program is one of just seven nationally licensed high school programs, and enables students to graduate with both a high school diploma and a veterinary assistant certification. By working at Tufts at Tech these high school students get on the job training while learning business communications and people skills.
Having come on as director in December, Wolfus oversaw the design and construction of the space and helped secure donations of top of the line equipment. Interior plans were made by students in the technical school’s Computer Aided Design and Drafting program, and construction and installation was done by students from Carpentry, Electrical, Plumbing, Metalworking, Painting and Interior Design, and Information Technology. The clinic has a spacious welcome and reception area, three examination rooms, a large treatment room, a surgical room, and a room for x-ray and radiography.
Tools and materials were donated from a number of local businesses and nationally known manufacturers, including stainless steel products from LabX, a digital radiography machine from a Massachusetts Life Science Grant, and a large moveable desk from the architectural mill-working firm Iaccarino and Sons. Idexx Laboratories provided a range of diagnostic equipment, allowing the clinic to test blood chemistries and complete blood cell counts. Both the high school and the veterinary school students are trained to run it, and they learn to use pipettes, microscopes, set up and read fecal exams, and run a urinalysis.
Wolfus’ favorite piece of equipment is decidedly lower-tech – the whiteboard. “It’s old-school compared to the rest of the stuff, but it’s the best part of the clinic,” he said. “It’s where so much of the education happens, when we sit down and work through a problem.”
Originally from California, Wolfus completed undergraduate studies at UC Berkley before coming to the Cummings School. After finishing his training in 1998, Wolfus worked as a primary care veterinarian at a practice west of Boston. A commitment to and love of teaching led him to volunteer in local schools doing what he calls “the vet talk,” and also at Cummings, facilitating problem-based learning programs for first-year vet students. He retains a touch of west coast slang, and a relaxed focus that helps his students concentrate even as they have to make sometimes difficult decisions about the health and future of the animals they treat.
“There’s no job like mine in the whole world,” said Wolfus with enthusiasm. “Watching students’ eyes pop when they do something new is awesome. I’m just stoked to be riding this wave.”
The model of the clinic is student-run, doctor overseen.
“All our students get experience with hands-on physical exams, and with client relations,” said Wolfus. “They do the intake, give the estimate, and explain and collect the fees. I evaluate the plans they come up with, give some feedback, and then they execute the treatment.”
Currently, students in the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program earn elective credit working in the clinic. Starting in March 2013, it will become a core rotation required for all veterinary students.
Maureen McDermott, V15, was a volunteer at the vaccination clinics run in previous years. Originally from upstate New York, she worked as a technician in a veterinary ER before coming to Tufts.
“We do get urgent cases here as well,” said McDermott. “About once a week we’ll see an animal that needs immediate attention.”
As if on cue, a Tech student from the front desk reported that a homeless military veteran had just come in with a dog that had a cough and had started vomiting. McDermott and Malouin developed a quick pre-plan, running through the different symptoms of kennel cough, canine influenza, and distemper, and checking references for the key things to watch for. Then they went off to meet their patient.
Originally published September 2012