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I'm an Emergency Vet, But I've Never Had My Own Veterinary Emergency Until Now

On the evening before New Year's Eve, Buster vomited. Then we had a night I'll never forget.

 |  Jan 14th 2014  |   19 Contributions


For the last six years I have worked as an emergency vet. My hours consist of nights, weekends, and holidays.

I have always understood on an intellectual level that nobody wants to see me in my role as an emergency vet. The emergency hospital is not where people want to be in the middle of the night, or on Christmas, or on Superbowl Sunday. I therefore have never taken offense when people, often dressed in their slippers and bathrobe, have seemed somewhat peevish about their circumstances at 3 a.m. And I never take it the wrong way when, in the morning after a long night with a sick pet, people say to me, "Thank you very much for your help, and don't take this the wrong way, but I sincerely hope I never see you again."

I feel true empathy for the pets and their owners who come to my office in dire circumstances late at night. I have always understood that they were suffering. But after an experience that occurred two weeks ago, now I can say that I really understand what they're going through.

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Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta.

Let me lead into this by saying that 2013 was a good year in general for my family. But it ended on a bad note. First, there was Christmas. This was my fifth year in a row working the night shifts leading into Christmas. They were brutal. This year it was not just the endless stream of dogs who had eaten chocolate that made the holiday rough. Apparently some variant of influenza that was resistant to this year's vaccine caused a pandemic in my area. I, and many of my staff members, came down with it several days before Christmas. Apparently I had wasted my time getting a flu shot this year.

Having the flu is bad. Working the night shifts leading into Christmas is bad. Working the night shifts leading into Christmas with the flu is beyond bad. I was seriously worn out by the time my night shifts ended, and then I was back to work the weekend after Christmas. Finally, on the Monday after Christmas, things were looking up. I was feeling better, and I didn't have to work again until Wednesday.

That Monday it was time to catch up on some errands and chores. My pal Buster got a good walk, followed by a nail trim (as per custom, he received several baby carrots after the trim) and a bath. While Buster was drying off I went to Costco. In addition to paper towels, LED light bulbs and printer cartridges, I bought myself an extra special post-Christmas treat: a bottle of Maker's Mark Whisky.

At around 5, when I was unloading my Costco purchases, Buster vomited. He deposited a pile of partially digested kibble and carrots on the carpet. Denise drew the short straw and cleaned it up. I evaluated Buster: He seemed fine. He has been known to vomit in response to stress in the family, and his dad had certainly been stressed for a while before that day. It was probably an isolated event that would be no big deal, or so I hoped.

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Photo by Liz Acosta

And indeed everything seemed fine in the world for all of us for the next several hours. I retired to my man cave to watch Netflix and sip Maker's Mark -- a night of relaxation that I felt I richly deserved. Buster and Denise relaxed with me.

At around midnight Buster asked to go out. This was not an abnormal behavior on his part -- he loves going out. I turned on the floodlights, scanned for raccoons, found none, and let him into the backyard. Soon thereafter my ears were greeted with the audible squirting sounds of diarrhea splattering in the yard. Those sounds were abnormal.

Now I was a bit on edge. I hoped that the diarrhea was simply a manifestation of mild gastrointestinal upset that was working its way through Buster's system. I assessed him again. Buster's abdomen was soft and not painful on palpation, and he was still bright, alert, and responsive. Might we dodge the bullet?

Buster answered that question emphatically a short while later by vomiting all over my man cave. He then promptly asked to go outside again. Denise accompanied him, and reported a fire hose-like stream of diarrhea that appeared to consist mostly of blood.

Buster had hemorrhagic gastroenteritis. He needed treatment. Hemorrhagic gastroenteritis, or HGE, is a description rather than a diagnosis. It occurs when dogs suffer from gastrointestinal upset so severe that hemorrhagic diarrhea or vomit or both occur. Dogs with the condition rapidly become dehydrated. Without treatment the condition is often fatal.

I called work to let them know we were coming. We loaded every towel we own into the car, and then put Buster in the back seat. By now he was clearly feeling terrible. Denise drove. I sulked.

As we traversed Interstate 380 en route from San Francisco to San Mateo (where I work), both Buster and I were in deep despair. He felt horrible. And for the first time I truly understood -- on every level -- what my clients go through when they bring their pets to the emergency clinic.

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Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Well, maybe not every level. I was distressed because I had been working on my second glass of Maker's Mark and would now have to face my coworkers (who, undoubtedly, would be cool about it). I was distressed because my dog had a condition that could be fatal if not treated. However, I also knew that the condition was rarely fatal when it was treated -- and Buster would be treated. I knew that the vet who would be issuing Buster's treatment orders (me) had treated this condition thousands of times. I knew that one of my best friends was the other vet on duty that night, and that some of the best technicians I've ever met would be caring for my dog while he was in the hospital. And unlike most clients, I knew in advance how much it would cost (a lot, even with my veterinary discount, but manageable). On the whole, I was really miserable -- but nowhere near as miserable as poor Buster.

Miraculously Buster did not vomit or defecate in the car. He even made it into the clinic without another eruption. Radiographs were consistent with gastrointestinal upset but did not show other significant pathology. Blood work was unremarkable. Buster's blood pressure was normal. The technicians placed an IV catheter and began IV fluids, gastronintestinal protectants, pain killers, and antibiotics. A short while later my poor pal suffered another blowout from both ends. Fortunately, that was the last of it. We left Buster in the capable hands of my clinic's staff, and we trodded home.

Long story short: Buster came home the next afternoon -- New Year's Eve. Denise and I cancelled our plans and spent the night tending to our recovering dog. It took him two days to really get back on his feet, but now he's feeling great. And he's clean again, after another bath (it turns out that HGE is not a good thing for a dog's cleanliness). To this day I do not know what caused his HGE; it may have been something he ate (although I didn't see anything unusual in his vomit), or it might have been some bug that I brought home from work. Incredibly, it also could have been the stress of the holidays.

I truly hated watching my pal, who has never in his life had a mean thought or met a person he didn't like, go through so much suffering. I'm very glad he's better. And I hope I never ever go back to a veterinary emergency clinic as a client rather than just as a veterinarian.

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