Part way through her career, Elizabeth Exline of Burke decided she needed to change her life completely.
She had attended art school and was working in a restaurant, being trained for management, when her beloved dog died.
After talking with Exline for hours, a longtime friend suggested she come help out at the Burke Forest Veterinary Clinic in Springfield.
Exline had interned at age 19 with Dr. Gary Schrader of Suburban Animal Hospital in Arlington before he retired, so she had some experience.
“I came for lunch,” Exline said of her first visit to the Springfield clinic, “and never left.”
She left the restaurant industry in 2007 and began working at Burke Forest in a role comparable to a physician’s assistant in a doctor’s office. “I had a panic attack, and then I just did it,” Exline said.
From an early age, she loved animals and envisioned herself in the veterinary industry. But school, opportunities in food service and other distractions drew Exline away from that path.
“Souls need to be fed,” Exline said, “and mine just wasn’t. I would’ve had an OK life, but that’s not why I’m put here. I want to have a great life, not mediocrity.”
Over the next several years, she became the practice manager: balancing personnel, patient schedules and everything going on in the office.
Dr. Jennifer Bowles Viergutz of Springfield took over Burke Forest, the first change in ownership in 30 years.
Dr. Bowles Viergutz called Exline “awesome” and “a Jack of all trades.”
“She knows all the clients by name,” Dr. Bowles Viergutz said, “she knows where everything is and how to work everything. She’s built trust and relationships, and she’s compassionate.”
TO EXPAND HER ROLE at the clinic, Exline enrolled in a Veterinary Certification program through Penn Foster College. She was able to take courses gradually while still working full-time.
When she completed the coursework, along with externships, after three years, Exline was named the Distance Education Accrediting Commission’s 2016 Outstanding Graduate of the Year.
Dr. Jim Hurrell is director of the Veterinary Academy for Penn Foster and was a mentor to Exline.
“She’s a pedestal technician for our program,” he said. “Her hunger, integrity, hard work ethic make her an ideal tech to put in front of all our students. She really is the entire package.”
Dr. Hurrell said they’re seeing a lot of thirtysomethings, like Exline, coming into their program. They’re people who have maybe switched or re-started careers, worked in a vet’s office for several years and now want credentials and degrees to complement their functional knowledge.
What also impressed Dr. Hurrell about Exline was not only her technical skill set, but her soft, people skills, valuable for dealing with owners of pets.
“She has the character for being loving and compassionate with the animals and the clients,” he said. “Dogs and cats never come into the hospital all by themselves with a credit card in their mouths. If I were still in clinical practice, she is exactly the kind of person I would look for to be a tech.”
Exline said she would like to specialize more in dentistry for pets.
Even just extracting a few teeth from a cat, she said, may not only dramatically improve the appearance of the animal, but also alter its personality.
“A cat can be super, super mean,” she said, “and then clients walk away saying, ‘I have a nice cat now.’”
WITH THE NEW OWNERSHIP and her new license giving Exline more opportunities to help more clients in more ways, she feels like she’s found the absolute right fit in her life. Things have come full circle.
“I knew I was supposed to end up here,” she said, adding that she derives great satisfaction from every day at the office. “Now I feel that in every aspect of my role.”
“So many people have to chase the dollar, and it is a tough economy out there that’s not getting easier,” Dr. Hurrell said. “But for the long haul, I would say, I really think people ought to chase those career dreams that bring joy into their lives. Sometimes that’s better than a paycheck.”
American Veterinary Foundation’s National Veterinary Technician Week is Oct. 16-22. Elizabeth Exline is being highlighted in two national veterinary journals out this month.
Burke Forest Veterinary Clinic is located at 6214 Rolling Road in Springfield. More information is available at www.burkeforestvet.com.