Dr. Amy Harbord performing surgery

Dr. Amy Harbord, DVM '17, performs surgery during a typical day at work at Aumsville Animal Clinic. Photo courtesy of Dr. Harbord.  

Feb. 16, 2022
By Jens Odegaard 

It was Dr. Amy Harbord’s first day at Aumsville Animal Clinic, a general practice in Aumsville, Oregon. She hadn’t done a spay in years. Yet here she was in the surgery bay, getting ready to make an incision on her canine patient. “I had not seen the inside of the abdomen of a dog or cat since I was at Oregon Humane Society which was three-and-a-half years ago,” she laughed. “I'm pretty sure I still remember what a uterus looks like.”  

As a student at Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, Harbord, DVM ’17, had completed a rotation at the OHS’s Animal Medical Learning Center in Portland, Oregon as part of her fourth-year education. At OHS, all fourth-year CCVM students live in dorms above the hospital and complete surgeries, most of them spays and neuters, under the guidance of Dr. Kirk Miller, senior instructor of small animal primary care and shelter medicine at the CCVM. 

The partnership between the CCVM and OHS started in 2007 and was the first of its kind between a veterinary college and shelter. With OHS homing more than 11,000 pets each year, it’s the perfect environment to get “hands-on experience with the types of medical, surgical and dental cases that students will see in small animal general practice,” Miller said. During their three-week rotations, “each student averages about 35 surgeries,” he said, bringing the total number of surgeries performed annually by CCVM students to “around 3,000 surgeries.”    

Several students are all work at once in a shared surgical suite where Dr. Miller and OHS technicians are on hand providing support and guidance. “At the beginning, I somewhat jokingly let them know that my expectations are low,” Miller laughed. “My approach is all about creating a calm atmosphere — they're nervous enough, I don't need to contribute to that.” 

This busy rotation is a big contrast to the minimal surgical experience students have prior to it. During their third year, CCVM students get to do a few spays and neuters as part of student surgical teams in the surgical laboratory. “When we were in our surgical labs there were three vet students absolutely fawning over this patient and it's getting checked like every few hours by one of the three people in that group. So you adore it, and you worry about it and you're proud of it, but it's certainly a shared thing that we did. At OHS you don’t have an assistant anymore, which is also how it works in the real world,” Harbord said. “You feel a lot more ownership of that surgery and of that patient.” 

Harbord and her classmates performed multiple surgeries each day at OHS — the majority of them spays and neuters on dogs and cats. “It is nice to have some of that instant repetition. If you have something that really challenges you or a moment that doesn't go well and you're like, ‘Oh, darn, they had to come help me.  I couldn't figure that out by myself.’ That stinks, but then you get to go right back and try to do it better immediately,” Harbord said. “And I think that really helps with the learning process and also with building confidence.” 

By the time they leave OHS, students are prepared to handle whatever comes up. “Frequently, students are visibly shaking their first day in surgery,” Miller said. “By the end of the rotation, they are performing these surgeries on their own!”

It was this learning in the real world that gave Harbord the confidence to approach the spay back at her first day at Aumsville Animal Clinic, despite not having performed once since she’d been in school.  

As a student, Harbord always planned to go into equine veterinary practice. And she did. For three years after graduation, Harbord worked with horses, first as a post-graduate intern in Colorado and then as a practitioner at an equine clinic in North Carolina. 

Over time however, she realized that her work was consuming her life. “I was truly never not working,” Harbord said. “I was kind of becoming a one-dimensional person where I was a horse vet, and I loved that, but there wasn't really anything else ever. 

"Was that really what I wanted for my life?” 

It wasn’t. What she wanted was time for her life outside work. Time to ride her own horse. Time to go trail running with her dog. Most importantly, time with family. “My husband and I weren’t seeing lot of each other, which was hard,” Harbord said. Harbord also wanted to be near her dad. “My mom passed away between my second and third year of vet school,” Harbord said. “So my dad was out here in Oregon by himself.” Harbord grew up in Molalla, Oregon and her husband is also an Oregonian.  “I decided that I wanted to be back closer to my dad, and my husband’s family is here,” she said.

Harbord started looking for openings in Oregon. Initially she searched for equine positions. But nothing was popping up that would give her the work-life balance she was looking for. “Very randomly, late one night, I decided to look up the small animal jobs and saw an opening at this practice,” Harbord said. 

Coincidentally, one of Harbord’s two best friends from vet school worked at Aumsville Animal Clinic, and had since graduation. “We'd stayed in touch while I was off gallivanting around the country. And she'd always been really, really happy and talked very highly of the group, and of the diverse caseload and all the different things that people get to do here. And I thought, ‘Well, I never thought that I'd do small animal, but if I was going to, I'd want to do it with her. That would be fun.'"

The position also offered lots of surgical opportunities. “That’s the one thing I really missed being a horse vet,” Harbord said. Because of the nature of many equine injuries, most of her equine patients in need of surgery had ended up at referral specialty centers.  

So Harbord fired off an email application that same night: “Sending in a resume that I quickly doctored from all of this equine stuff. I basically put in a line that was like, ‘Yeah, I'll work on dogs and cats,’” Harbord said. “Looking back on it, it probably wasn't the most convincing I'm-transitioning-to-a-new-career-field resume that anyone's ever seen. But they called me, and we talked and it was a great group. So they hired me off a phone call.” 

Harbord’s now been with the practice for a year and a half. She works four days a week, and the “three days that I'm not at work, I'm out doing the things that I love” Harbord said. “And so that has certainly made me a much better parent to my dog, and partner to my husband, and better friend and a more pleasant human in all aspects of my life.” 

Looking back, Harbord credits her rotation at OHS with giving her the ability to make this leap into a new type of practice. “I think it's hard to overstate the value of getting to be hands-on and submerged in a different variety of the real world while you're in vet school. The biggest thing that it affects is your confidence and your decision-making abilities in a clinical setting right when you start,” Harbord said. “I mean, it's shaped a lot of my career that I didn't think it would, which, life is just kind of funny how it works that way.”