Auckland Zoo senior vet nurse Breeze Buchanan, who colleagues describe as an exceptionally skilled, compassionate, and inspirational team member, has been recognised as one of our country’s top three veterinary nurses in the 2023 Vet Nurse of the Year Award.

Our congratulations Breeze!

The New Zealand Veterinary Nurses Association (NZVNA) annual award (announced 13 October) recognises the hard mahi and dedication of veterinary nurses to their profession including their innovation, initiative, and commitment to patient/client care.

Breeze, one of two runners-up for this year’s award, grew up on the Thames Coast in a family of conservationists, and always wanted to work with animals. After roles in general practice, gaining wide experience with wildlife, farm, and domestic animals in Australia as well as in the fast-paced, high-stress environment of emergency vet nursing, she joined Auckland Zoo’s veterinary services team in 2014.

“Working at Auckland Zoo is my dream job as I get to combine my love for nursing animals in so many different capacities and help wildlife in the wild – something that felt unachievable when I was younger. It wasn’t until I did a placement at the Zoo that I saw how it devotes resources to conserving wildlife as well as to the Zoo whānau of animals, and knew it was exactly the kind of organisation I wanted to work for,” says Breeze, a vet nurse for the past 15 years who says she feels very honoured to have even be nominated for this award.

“It’s a huge privilege being able to work with such a passionate group of dedicated and knowledgeable people from across the Zoo and with our other partners, and the variety is incredible. I can be looking after a Tasmanian devil in quarantine, working with our amazing keepers to take blood samples from a tiger, assisting with surgery on an alligator or be out in the field helping DOC with transmitter changes and health checks on kākāpō down on Fiordland’s Pukenui Anchor) Island!”

An inspirational colleague

Breeze was nominated for this year’s award by Zoo managers and colleagues as well as external partners. Overwhelmingly, they highlighted her outstanding clinical skills, her reassuringly calm quiet confidence under pressure, positive attitude, empathy for both animals and people, and drive to continually upskill and always go that extra mile.

Fellow vet nurse Celine Campana describes Breeze as having “an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things veterinary, an anaesthetic nurse guru, and the nurse to call when things are not going to plan!”

“Of all the nurses I have known in my 20+-year career, Breeze is the one I want by my side when we encounter an unstable anaesthesia with a potentially dangerous animal, and her incredible empathy for all is especially evident when it comes to the end-of-life treatment we are privileged to provide for the animals in our care,” says Celine. 

Dr Lydia Uddstrom, a former veterinary resident at the Zoo and now DOC’s veterinary advisor for kākāpō, has first-hand experience of working with Breeze.

“I’ve been privileged to know and work with Breeze for seven years, and her care of patients and the team around her always goes above and beyond anything that could be expected of her. Over the past 12 months Breeze nursed kākāpō Roha (one of only 247 kākāpō in the world) through a severe case of aspergillosis, which required one year of treatment. Kākāpō are highly intelligent and notoriously difficult to keep in hospital for extended periods of time, yet with the dedication of Breeze and the rest of the health care team, Roha’s brain was kept busy, and she fully recovered and returned to the wild,” explains Lydia.

“Not only does Breeze show extraordinary dedication to conservation in her professional life, she also dedicates holiday time to upskilling and caring for wildlife. In November 2022, she was part of a team at The Wildlife Hospital (Dunedin) working to treat and hand-raise hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) chicks. 

“Breeze fitted seamlessly into this different team at a highly pressurised time with more chicks hospitalised at once than ever before. Despite being ‘on holiday’ she gave her all – working many more hours than rostered to support the team and the work.”

NZVNA executive committee and judging panel member Ellie Clark says the calibre of vet nurses nominated for the 2023 award was extremely high.

“There are over 1400 vet nurses in New Zealand eligible to apply for Vet Nurse of Year, and we had very impressive applications from across the country from a diverse range of

veterinary practices. Breeze, like our other finalist and winner, is so deserving of this recognition of her achievement and should feel incredibly proud.”

Highlights and challenges

For Breeze, vet nursing is an amazingly fulfilling, rewarding, and challenging field to work in, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“One of the most challenging aspects of our job as vet nurses is losing patients that we’ve put our hearts and souls, as well as skills, into caring for, and in some cases built a relationship with over years. This aspect of the job never gets any easier, but thankfully there are enough happy endings to get you through the hard days, and the Zoo is such a supportive environment. We all support each other to get through, so you never feel alone in your grief.”

A particularly special patient highlight for Breeze this year was helping nurse a critically ill female matuku-hūrepo (Australasian bittern) back to health, enabling it to be released back to the wild.

“As DOC released it with a transmitter, we’ve been able to receive regular updates confirming it’s doing well. It’s extremely rewarding, and fingers crossed she’ll go on to breed and contribute to bolstering this species’ numbers!”

Advice to aspiring vet nurses

Breeze, who as a senior vet nurse plays an increasing role mentoring up-and-coming less experienced vet nurses at the Zoo, advises anyone interested in getting into vet nursing and the field of conservation vet nursing to “go for it”!

“Don’t let anyone put you off by telling you it’s too hard to get a job in this field. If you are dedicated and work hard, volunteer with different vet clinics and conservation organisations, then opportunities will arise for sure!”