I love my sleep.
Preferably with my euro-topped mattress, 800 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets and memory foam pillow. I delight in the lavender essential oil diffusing from my nightstand, the sound machine filling the air with whale songs and beach waves. A good, solid eight hours of slumber is one of my favorite things in life.
What I don’t love quite as much?
Sleeping alone on a cold hard-tiled floor with nothing but a ratty towel to clutch. The distinct smell of vomit, diarrhea and metallic blood diffusing throughout the air. The intermittent shrieking of the monitor alarms that pierce the quiet. The long hours in the dead of the night that are spent in worry and anxiety.
When you think of an overnight spent by a veterinarian, you may be envisioning a scene like a human hospital. At a 24-hour emergency vet hospital, things are much like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but filled with pets instead. The place is alive with energy and excitement. There are numerous staff to help triage and treat sick animals and the place is always busy. There are specific rooms, maybe even a bed set up for those managing care throughout the twilight hours.
In contrast, when the sun goes down at a regular vet clinic, everyone goes home. All is quiet on the Western front and there is no set up for a slumber party. You would be lucky to find a comfortable plastic chair to rest in. It is about as likely as your family physician spending the night camped out in their office, snuggled up with a patient gown. Nonetheless, let me tell you a bedtime story about my night alone at the clinic.
Once upon a time, I was working as the lone veterinarian at a small clinic on the outskirts of town. The afternoon was steady and I looked up in surprise to see my elderly aunt and uncle walk through the door. They had recently adopted a Golden retriever puppy named Buster. Occasionally, this boy got into trouble with swallowing inedible objects. His menu included elastics, pebbles and tissue paper; all of which had come out the other end. Unfortunately, this time Buster bit off more than he could chew.
“Buster stole some clothes of mine, Dr. Loretta,” whispered my aunt while clutching her frayed purse nervously.
“Ahem,” my uncle cleared his throat, trying to prompt his wife to continue. My poor aunt turned a deep shade of crimson as she tried to choke out the rest of the story.
“He got wild and dove into the laundry pile. He ran off with some delicates. I tried to wrangle them out of his mouth but he swallowed one,” she confessed. Fighting to keep a straight face, I asked for clarification:
“So, Buster was chewing the laundry and accidently swallowed a pair of your underwear?”
My aunt nodded her head and shuffled awkwardly, avoiding eye contact. “It was probably the lacy red one!” said my uncle as he winked.
After extracting the necessary information from them, I hurried to the examination room and saw that Buster was indeed quite ill. He was lying listlessly on the table and whimpered in discomfort. I suspected the underwear was still lodged inside and causing a blockage. Buster needed immediate surgery and continuous monitoring of his vitals and pain levels upon recovery. Complications post-op are common and he would need to be watched carefully overnight.
The vet clinic closed at 7 p.m. and there were no employees scheduled until the next morning. Usually, a patient like Buster would be transferred to the large emergency vet hospital with 24-hour staff. The cost of continuous intensive care would have been significant. Unfortunately, my relatives were retired and on a fixed income; an overnight emergency clinic transfer was financially impossible. They looked so desperate and worried; I knew that I wanted to help as much as I could.
“I will stay overnight and sleep next to him after surgery, but you owe me a coffee tomorrow,” I heard myself promise.
Are you kidding?! I panicked on the inside: you’re scared of being alone during a thunderstorm, now you’re going to sleep in the dark quiet clinic all by yourself tonight? I took a few deep calming breaths and reassured myself, it’s fine, everything is fine, what could possibly go wrong?
Hours later, the last employee left and I carefully locked the doors and windows. The clinic was empty except for Buster and me. He was still sleepy from his surgery and lay quietly in his cage. The sun was setting and soon darkness engulfed the clinic.
Tired from the hectic day, I yawned and decided to get some rest after checking Buster. Because there was no other veterinarian available, I could not go home to get dinner or pajamas. I was stuck in my questionably clean scrubs and lab coat for the evening. I set up some old towels next to the cage and fashioned a crude bed, blanket and pillow out of them. The chill from the tile emanated up through the threads of terry cloth. There was no pleasant lavender smell tonight, just the hint of mixed bodily fluids and disinfectant.
Creak, scratch, scratch…What was that?
Something was coming for me! I shot up and looked around frantically for something to protect myself with. A thunderstorm had begun. The treatment room was well stocked with medical supplies, but options for self-defense were quite sparse. Scalpels and scissors were housed in the surgical suite, far away. I had the options of a dog leash, an enema flush syringe, and an otoscope (a long, pointy instrument). This was not exactly an intimidating getup to face an intruder, but I made do with the leash and otoscope.
As I crept down the dark hallway, flashes of lightning intermittently lit the way. I could feel the hairs on my neck bristle as I watched the sinister shadows move. I tiptoed towards the window and jumped up, brandishing my weapons with a roar. My loud yell was unheard because was nobody there. Peering outside, I breathed a sigh of relief. The scratching sound was from tree branches brushing against the glass from the wind. Satisfied, I nonchalantly tucked the otoscope back into my pocket and loosened my grip on the leash.
Feeling silly and momentarily calm, I headed back towards the treatment room. The peace did not last long. As I made my way back to Buster’s cage, a faint beeping sound grew louder and shriller with every footstep. Panicked, I ran towards the cage bracing myself for the worst.
Is he dying?
He must be bleeding everywhere!
Did his stitches rip open?
I swung open the cage door and started an emergency assessment. I strained into my stethoscope to hear his heartbeat and breathing.
Lub dub, lub dub
Ok, everything was good in that department. His vitals parameters on the monitor looked fine. In fact, Buster gave me a raised eyebrow and shot me a look of disdain for interrupting his slumber.
Next, I checked his stitches, convinced that I would find either a leaking hole or pile of organs on the wrong side of the incision. The thought was straight out of a horror movie, but reality proved me wrong. Everything looked perfect there too as all the stitches were in place.
Scratching my head, I paused and blinked repeatedly. Then I spotted it. His intravenous line was kinked. He had shifted his bum in his sleep and sat on it. After I pushed his bum off the tubing, the alarm stopped and he settled back to sleep. Still panting from my own near heart attack, I shakily sat down on my makeshift bed and tried to relax. The night was young and I was already exhausted from my frazzled nerves.
Somehow between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., I drifted in and out of sleep between assessments of Buster. My dreams were chaotic and filled with zombies lumbering towards me against the flashes of lightening. I was running and flailing trying to fight the decayed hands off me. A zombie locked gaze with me, his eyes were empty and black. With a deep growl, he jumped towards me and knocked me down. The weight on my chest was crushing and oppressive. I felt dampness on my face, oozing blood. This is it - I’m facing the end and my certain death!
Just as I braced myself for the final vicious bite from the zombie, I felt a warm wet tongue. As I blinked into consciousness, I strained against the emerging light of dawn. Buster was sitting completely on top of me, covering my face with kisses.
Oh, thank goodness, I’m not being eaten by a zombie.
He had nudged open the cage door when I fell asleep without locking it. He looked bright and well rested (unlike myself). I gave him a relieved hug and did a thorough morning assessment to ensure that things were well. With the arrival of a new day, the weight of worry and fear fell away. He'd made it through the most critical period and would be on his way towards a full recovery. We both had survived the dead of the night at the vet clinic.
I called my relatives and updated them on Buster’s progress. They were so relieved and promised to bring a coffee over immediately.
As the sun rose, the clinic started to fill with the hum of people and animals. While I got ready for another day of appointments, I thought longingly of my own wonderful bed waiting for me at the end of my shift. Suppressing a tired yawn, I greeted the first client of the day.
“G’morning Doc, thanks for seeing us. We're here today because I’m worried my cat swallowed my ear plugs…”
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VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.