Mindhunters and Midnight Calls

For my first on-call weekend, I was co-pilot to one of the associates and assistants. Around 11:30pm, as we were wrapping up our 4th emergency of the day, we got an ER call for a horse in respiratory distress. The first address we arrived at was in the middle of a suburban neighborhood, obviously the wrong address. We idled in the couldesac while the associate, Dr. Kepper, struggled to get the correct address. It seemed no one on the phone knew the address for the residence, althought they confirmed the horse was in fact at their residence.

After 25 minutes of wrong turns, u-turns, and sleuthing via google maps, we made it to the right road. We drove quickly down the paved road, passing occasional looming, dimly lit mansions. When the driveway ended, we parked in front of a run-down expansive ranch home. None of us got out at first. We just watched the events unfold infront of us. Our arrival sparked some confusion amongst the obviously enebriated residents. Enebriation, not uncommon for late night calls, usually owners who opened a bottle or two of wine before discovering their horse had a laceration or bit of colic. But it didn’t take long observing this group of random strangers, that enbriation was a little too soft a word. Their movements were, for lack of a better word, tweaky. Their speech was incoherient, thoughts scrambled. I wondered how they had managed to call us, let alone find our practice online.

I am going to preface the remainder of the story with this small tidbit: Earlier today, I had binge-watched the second half of Netflix’s season one of Mindhunters.

One man, in his mid 40s, approached us. To access the back pasture, they had to move a truck which blocked the driveway around the back of the house. We did not think much, until a scrawny young man and man in his mid 70s came wandering through the overgrown hedges of the front lawn. From somewhere in these hedges, they produced jumper cables.

Dr. Kepper wasn’t about to wait for these shenanigans. “We’ll just walk. How far is the horse?”

The central area of the house was mostly windows with a large atrium garden. With every light on inside you could see the entire layout of the home. Dark is dark, I’ll admit. But it wasn’t until I got outside that I realized just how dark the night was. No moon, no stars, just darkness above and around. I grabbed the headlamp and Dr. Kepper carried her laptop as a makeshift light source. The guy lead us around the side of the house, wading into darkness and unknown terrain. In the light of my headlamp, I saw he had his shoes on the wrong feet, the last half of the shoelace strands worn off. He wore one dirty sock. I glanced inside the house in time to see a figure of a woman sitting on the floor rocking back and forth anxiously.

Uneven steps led down the side of the house past windows of the daylight basement. One of the windows in the basement had black, metal bars on the inside of the glass. The room was empty, but I could see a jail-style door on the opposite wall. On the other side of the rod-iron door was a normal door. No one else seemed to notice the homemade “cage.”

This was the point at which Mindhunters triggered my rampant imagination. We continued in silence down behind the house, through the middle of a pasture of unknown proportion. The only noise was the sound of us slushing through damp, tall grass. After several minutes, an old barn loomed ahead in the glow of my headlamp. Dr. Kepper marched on, following a couple yards behind the man. The barn had two big doors, but the first thing I noticed were the many, many locks and bolts and chains on the outside. It as not necessary to count the number of bolts, padlocks and chains to know that it was excessive and albeit, alarming.

The man was heading straight for the barn, Dr. Kepper striding behind. The assistant shot me a “this is #$%@ing sketch look.” I mouthed back “I will not go in there.”

Just as we thought he was going to start unlatching, unlocking the doors, he turned and lead us beyond beyond broken fencing into another expansive field. If possible, this field felt even darker than the first. I couldn’t see the house behind us anymore and I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was following us.

This was when I began to wonder if there even was a sick horse here.

I kept checking behind us as I followed Dr. Kepper’s laptop glow. Just as I was going to ask how much further to the horse, a shadowy figure came into view. I feel kind of ashamed to admit it, but it was a wave of relief that washed over me the moment I saw the down horse. Then that relief vanished, and we all launched into emergency care mode.

The mare, down and unresponsive, had labored breathing, no CRT, a heart rate of 80 and weak peripheral pulse. She was matted, sticky with sweat that had cooled, and her muscles were rigid. It was very apparent she had been suffering for some time. Her body was covered in wounds, the ground around her torn up from her thrashing around. After discussing prognosis and options, the owner elected for euthanasia. Although a sad ending, the ability to bring an end to her drawn out suffering was the most compassionate thing we could do. While the owner disappeared into the darkness, we sat with the mare for a few moments before confirming she had passed.

Silently, under the glow of the dying headlamp and Dr. Keppler’s laptop, we navigated our way back to the truck. After loading up, no one said a word until we had some distance.

“I know no one attacked us or threatened us, but I just have the feeling that we narrowly escaped with our lives.” I said, and a some laughter lightened the heavy mood in the truck…right before Dr. Kepper’ phone rang with the next late night emergency.


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Logistics Behind Ambulatory Work, Part II: Drive Time

I receive quite a few questions from ride alongs, job shadows, students and clients about the ambulatory component of work as a mobile equine vet. I decided to share some of my experiences and insight by answering some of the most common questions I get. In Part I, I discussed some of the logistics behind scheduling, navigating and billing for our practice.

The next series of questions I am frequently asked include:

  • How much time do you spend in the car on average per day?
  • What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place?
  • What do you do in the car all day?

 

Drive Time

Google Map’s timeline is an invaluable resource for tracking how much time we spending getting from point A to point B, tracking mileage, tracking the time spent at each farm call and overall time spent driving per day. All this data is arranged in a calendar mode, meaning I can pick any day of the month and retrace my route.
The season and whether or not I am on call are large factors in the amount of time I spend in the car. I went back and reviewed my timelines from different months to get an idea of variation between seasons.

Our slow season is November-March, so I chose to review the month of January. For the month of January, drive time was 2-3 hours per day with 2-3 farm calls (1-2 hours were spent at each farm call). My on-call days with emergencies increased the average number of hours to 4, with 1-2 farm calls per day. The average appointment time for these emergencies was 2-3 hours.

From March-June, business starts to amp up. For May, drive time per day averaged 4-5 hours with an average of 4 farm calls a day. On days with emergencies, drive time was 5 hours with 2-3 farm calls per day.

Our peak busy season is from the end of June to the beginning of September. When I reviewed my timeline data for July and August, my jaw dropped. I knew I spent a lot of time on the road…but was still shocked to find that the average amount of time I spent in the truck was 8 hours per day with 4-6 farm calls per day.

And the longest we ever spent driving in one day? 10 hours!! This was for a day with 4 farm calls appointments and 3 emergencies. And the longest drive I’ve made in one direction was 2.5 hours, from the northern part of the Realm to the western part of our Realm with closure of a major highway due to an accident.


Making the Most of It

When not in conversation or on the phone with clients, the first thing I do during the drive between barns is complete my medical records and invoices. This is, by far, the biggest advantage to having my assistant drive. At my previous job, when I did not have an assistant, I would have to do invoicing and notes at the end of the day…often times adding another 2-4 hours to my work day. Not only was this exhausting, but increased my errors on invoices and reduced the quality of my medical records.

Once medical records and invoices are done, other work-related tasks I do are review lab results, go over my follow-up list, and review the appointments for the next day. When that is all said and done, I move on to entertainment. I have a wide variety of music tastes, but spend enough time in the car and all types of music wear on you after awhile.

So, I discovered podcasts…a wide variety of podcasts that range from veterinary education, to psychology, crime, current events, controversial topics, history and so on. Some of my favorites include:

Favorite Podcasts from Pocketcast

Logistics behind Ambulatory Work

Occasionally, we have ride-alongs or people doing job shadows, usually students ranging from high school to vet school. For those considering a career in veterinary medicine or future ambulatory vets, it is an interactive, uncensored day-in-the-life experience. The types of questions I did not really expect to get were regarding commuting and driving. The questions I get asked most often include:

  • How big of an area do you serve? What are the logistics behind scheduling appointments? Who determines the route? How do you know how much to charge for a farm call?
  • How much time do you spend in the car on average per day? What is the longest you’ve ever driven to one place? What do you do in the car all day?
  • Does getting car sick mean you can’t be an ambulatory vet?
  • Does the truck ever break down? Have you ever gotten in an accident with the work truck?

I’ve received these questions often enough that I decided to write a couple posts about this side of the profession from my personal experience.


The Realm

Our service area (which I refer to as the realm) is vast, one of the largest I’ve seen. From where our office is located, we service up to an hour and a half in every direction…meaning our call radius is 1.5 hours, not factoring in traffic. The realm ends up being a large part of the western side of our state. While the majority of our work is North, an emergency an hour South of our office could mean a 2.5 hour drive from one end of our range to the other. Most practices I’ve spent time with service a 40 minute radius around their hub.

As for navigating the realm? I have to give a shout out to navigation apps. All of this would be a lot more difficult without today’s smart phones, GPS etc. I consider myself very fortunate to practice in a time when this technology is easily available. Not afraid to admit that I cannot imagine the farm call experience before Google maps existed. For the vast majority of our navigation, we use Google maps and Waze, which do a great job 95% of the time.


Scheduling

Luckily, our front office staff are all locals with an excellent knowledge of the cities/towns and road system. Equally important is knowledge about traffic. The commute to a particular barn in the morning could be well over an hour, while the same route could take 30 minutes if its around lunch time.

Efficiency requires concise, well-planned routes, the front desk carries the heavy burden of scheduling. And they are phenomenal at avoiding the big scheduling mistakes, which off the time of my head are:

  • Return trips (same barn more than once in a day)
  • Same stops (different doctors to the same barn in a day)
  • To-and-fro (alternating near and far locations like North  South  North  South …vs. starting north and working south throughout the day)
  • Localizing (keeping all farms in a particular direction, vs having calls at complete opposite ends of the service radius)

I have full respect and appreciation for the skills of the front desk staff, because I dabbled in scheduling at my previous job and found it to be a pain-staking, hair-pulling mess.


The Financial Side

Minimizing drive time is essential, as our farm call fees (ranging from $80-140) over times barely cover the overhead and wages one way…not to mention if the next call is equally far at the other end of our range. Often times, the company actually loses money as the basic, rough example below shows:

Farm call 40 miles from office, 1 hour drive time

  • Farm call fee charged to client: $100
  • Gas: $10
  • Vehicle wear and tear, mileage, licensing, insurance: $25
  • Assistant’s time (company cost): $25
  • Doctor’s time (company cost): $60
  • Total cost to company for farm call (one direction): $120

Not a precise or perfect example, but easy to see why scheduling and routes are so important. And after all the effort is made into tactfully planning an efficient day, there comes an emergency call that changes it all…and even if the call is at the other side of the realm, traveling in peak traffic hours, those facts don’t register because the focus shifts to getting there safely and as soon as possible, so that we can do what we joined this profession to do- care for our equine patients and the clients attached to them.

the Unexpected Problem #2 (ER case, part 1)

After seeing a couple of routine appointments, we started receiving back-to-back emergencies. Our emergency calls included a colic, a foot abscess, a case of cellulitis and a minor laceration. Around 9pm, right as we parked the work truck in the garage, my work phone rang. On the other end of the line, was a panick stricken owner who thought her horse had fractured its leg after getting kicked by another horse in turn-out. We regrouped, and made the short 25 minute drive to the ER.


The Presenting Complaint and (Most) Obvious Problem

When we arrived, we spotted the mare in the beam of our headlamps. She stood in the pasture, trembling, painful and unable to bear weight on her hind leg. Aside from a <1 inch long laceration through the skin located in front of her hip, there were no real significant findings on my physical exam. I could not palpate a fragment, fracture or instability in the limb. After ruling out a foot abscess, fracture of the distal phalanx, we confirmed no fracture from the stifle down. Our radiograph equipment in the field is not capable of shooting images of the hips or pelvis, and with no ultrasound, ruling out a pelvic fracture wasn’t going to be an option. Leaving her in the pasture, without water or shelter, was not an acceptable option. After giving pain meds and sedation, we inched our way slowly and steadily to the barn.

Discovering the (Less) Obvious, but Equally Serious Problem

In the barn, I turned my attention to the wound over the hip while I next steps for the painful leg. After clipping around the wound, I was both shocked and disturbed to find out the extent of the wound. What looked like a superficial, small tear in the skin, was actually a dime-sized penetrating wound. With a flashlight, I looked into the wound and probed the extent. Beyond layers of muscle, fascia, fat and connective tissue…I found myself looking through a tiny viewing window right into the mare’s abdomen. I saw the glisten of light off what I presumed to be the right dorsal colon.

Bad Gets Worse

A penetrating wound into the abdomen doesn’t carry a favorable prognosis, especially when managed in the field. The client’s financial constraints meant referral for hospitalization was not an option. Abdominocentesis (belly tap), bloodwork, ultrasound, SAA…also not within the financial realm. Dedicated to trying, and wanting to give the mare a chance, the client asked for the most aggressive approach we could take to treating in the field within set limitations.

Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, suturing the wound and monitoring comprised the mainstay of our treatment protocol. To be honest, I was expecting these efforts to serve mainly as a comfort and reassurance that we had tried something. I’ve seen horses succumb to far less serious ailments with intensive treatments and hospitalization. We placed an IV catheter so we could start a robust course of antibiotics (kpen and gentamicin) and banamine.

Where it gets interesting

By 1am, we had discussed catheter care, administer meds, given extensive instructions on what to watch for…and when we left, the entire ride back was filled discussions on everyone’s thoughts, ideas, speculations …wondering about the source of the lameness as well as the surprising penetrating hole. The hole was clean through the side of the horse, with defined edges and minimal surrounding trauma…almost like it had been made intentionally, by someone blessed with the art of careful dissection. Without knowing the systemic status of the horse, I could hardly sleep with thoughts of the undiagnosed fracture, the possibility of punctured bowel, the chance that whatever punctured her side could be floating around in the abdomen, the imminent danger of sepsis and endotoxemia…this, combined with group speculation as to what caused the wound.

A stick?

A nail?

Fencing?

Tree branch?

What about a bullet? The client asked, explaining that the family dog had sustained a similar injury a year ago when he had been shot with a small-caliber gun (pellet gun or 22?) by a disgruntled neighbor. With so many unknowns, possible complications and serious risks associated with this emergency case… I was not optimistic about the outcome of our next visit, which I expected would in the very, very near future.