By Pierre B. Bland, DVM
Being a veterinarian is not all puppies and kittens. I assure you. As with any profession, the behind the curtains world is not so glamorous. The weekend shift at an emergency clinic is a perfect example. The weekend is divided in two shifts: Saturday 12:00 PM until Sunday 10:00 AM and Sunday 10:00 AM until Monday 8:00 AM. I have only had the experience of working the first weekend shift throughout my career. For that I am thankful.
The thought of working a 20 hour shift is daunting. Sure, you have a bed promising the sanctuary of sleep, the waste land of cable television, the alluring black hole of internet access, and the promise of eating your way through the potential boredom. All these diversions are just a tease of activities you likely will only experience for the briefest of moments. The optimum way to toil away the 20 hours would be a combination of down time and emergency cases. In my opinion, hoping for this combination borders on the morose, since it would necessitate the misfortune of a pet and their owner. I choose not to put such thoughts out into the ether for fear of them coming to fruition. For me, the worst aspects of the shift are clearly products of my own anxiety.
Being bound to a building for 20 hours as the doctor on call perversely plays into my personal nightmares of forced confinement. There could be no less relaxing environment than this one. The phone lines ring and flash incessantly. This is compounded by the buzzer, known as a doorbell in more polite environs. It hangs over the hours like a sonic sword of Damocles. And people don’t just ring the buzzer, they lean on it. BUUUUZZZZZZZ, and the sword falls. This light and sound cocktail was desirable back in my neophyte days when I was an unabashed adrenaline junkie. Maturity has taught me better. “Why do I do this?” I asked rhetorically and respond, “It’s my job and I like my job.”
I arrive at the facility and am greeted by the technician. Yes, technician, singular. We are a force of two. When working such long hours, it help to be with someone who’s company you enjoy and is good at what she does. I am fortunate to work with an individual who qualifies in both respects. People who do emergency work are unique. For them, it is calling. Who in their right mind would work the long over- night hours the position demands? By her own admission, my tech loves emergency work because it offers a combination of freedom, professional satisfaction, and financial recompense that a day time practice can’t. We both have our reasons for being here and part of the job is to be supportive of those reasons individually and collectively.
I enter my bedroom/office with purpose. I set up the desk with my computer, reference books, a twenty dollar bill weighed down by my car keys, water, and snacks. Snacks are important. They can be just the psychological break/pick me up you need at that trying moment, so always bring enough to share. Stress induced munchies always loves company. They also help get you through to dinner…whenever it may be and if it occurs. I try to avoid caffeine because it tends to agitate my fore mentioned anxieties. For the entire time I am setting up, the phone is ringing. I finish just in time. The bell rings, just 20 minutes into the shift.
We start off with multiple clients and are behind before we get started: a seizuring dog, a cat that is having problems urinating, a dog having diarrhea because his owners can’t medicate him as directed, and a dog with severe itching. An emergency is an emergency, actual and perceived. The best analogy is to think of it as a juggling act: you give each client and case the attention it needs, while making sure records are current, treatments and procedures are done, all while being aware of the new cases arriving. The phone and the buzzer are both in full effect. At this point, they have become background noise.
The cases seem to come in waves: the dog hit by a car, the cat with breathing problems, the hamster with an upper respiratory infection, animals presented dying and dead. At this point your training practically becomes instinctual. You triage the cases and get to work. Some animals are treated and go home, some are hospitalized. It is one of those days. “I thought there was a big football game on this afternoon. That usually slows thing down for a couple of hours. Guess not.” The cases keep flowing in: the dog that ate marijuana, the cat that hasn’t urinated for the last three days, the comatose ferret, and the dog that is “just not acting like himself” according to the owner. I notice it is now dark outside. I don’t think about time. You just make it work. So much for dinner.
All of a sudden, it is 1:00 AM Sunday morning. The time has passed almost unnoticed due to the heavy work load. A trait of a good, no, great vet tech is finding the time to order dinner for me, despite our work load. Around 9:00 PM Saturday night, she used the twenty on my desk to order a sandwich, chips, and a soda. I am thankful.
3:00 AM and cases are still arriving. The phone continues ringing, but not as frequently. At this point we are seeing the cases that had called multiple times earlier in the shift, but decided now was the time to come in: the dog with an ear infection, the vomiting cat, and the cat with the watering eye since last Wednesday. By the time I see and treat these early morning patients, check on the hospitalized animals, and eat my dinner, it is almost 7:00 AM. I finish my records and finally have a break. Too wound up to sleep, so I put on some music, turn off the lights, and lie down. I close my eyes and visualize the stress of the previous 17 hours flowing out of my body through the souls of my feet. The phone continues to ring sporadically. Mostly owners calling to check on their hospitalized pets.
The next 3 hours drag by in the mire of inactivity and routine duties. The shift change occurs on time, and I am on my way home at 10:00 AM on Sunday morning. As I drive, I feel a mixture of satisfaction, exhaustion, and completion. The exhaustion and satisfaction are understandable. The completion was a new feeling. I had just finished the last 20 hour shift of my career, thanks to my new house call practice. I will have to find other triggers for myself induced anxiety. Am sure there are plenty to discover.
Dr. Pierre Bland is the owner of Dr. Bland’s Vet House Calls. He can be reached at 954-673-8579 or at doctorblandvet.com.