On-Call Days

Down-time and Silent Days

Making the most of it

There are on-call days when the phone is silent. This silence comes with its own secret recipe for stress…4 parts foreboding for 1 part paranioa. It can feel like the longer the silence, the more intense the impending ER storm is going to be. It took me awhile to figure out what to do, or not do, during down-time while “on-call.” After trial and error, I have developed strong on-call-but-not-on-a-call habits. When I first started taking on-call, it felt normal to be poised by the cell phone just waiting for it to ring. When an ER did ring, I could spring into action and be out the door in less than 5 minutes. But when the phone didn’t ring, a faint feeling of regret would creep in. Not only did I feel that the day was (personally) wasted, but I also felt (professionally) unfulfilled.

For me, utilizing down-time while still on-call is essential for avoiding burn-out, promoting work-life balance and reinforcing the truth that work has not become my life. When I say utilizaing, I mean being productive enough that time doesn’t feel wasted in wait for an ER than never comes. On the other hand, any project that is started has to be one that can be dropped at a moment’s notice. But on silent days…I still check my phone a minimum 5 times/hr, confirm max volume 2 times/hr and check that airplane mode is not activated once/hour.

My most recent day on call was anything but silent. Between 7:30am and 11:30pm, we had attended 7 emergencies and saw 2 add-on appointments. That’s a full day, especially during the slow season. As I drove home at 1am, I found myself running through the day’s events and eventually mulling over two emergencies in particular. It wasn’t that these two emergencies were clinically distinct, fascinating or dangerous…in fact, they are both circumstances that I would normally shrug off as inconveniences of the job. However, I think the nature of the two circumstanaces is important when gaining perspective into a day-in-the-life of a veterinarian.


The “Nevermind” Emergency

The ER call rang 15 minutes before the start of our doctors’ meeting. Susan, who was not a current client of our practice, was frantic over the phone. While in the midst of explaining what was happening with her mare, she repeatedly interrupted herself to say

“My vet’s not answering. I can’t get ahold of my vet. I don’t understand why she’s not answering.”

I can imagine how confusion, fear and panic in the moment, is exacerbated when a client’s trusted lifetime vet of 15-20 years is MIA. Tone of voice, pitch, inflection and word-choice can paint a vivid emotional picture, especially of the client feeling pain and confusion brought on by a sense of abandonment. On rare occasions, bitterness and resentment are aimed at whichever vet does respond to the call. From firsthand experience, this type of treatment from clients is hard to swallow.

“Shelving” Client Mistreatment

When it comes to professional advocacy, I think simply swallowing mistreatment from clients does the profession a disservice. In my opinion, having the issue temporarily “shelved” vs. simply swallowed, establishes a line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. While I don’t think disrespect is something to just “put up with,” having an open discussion requires a particular environment and mindset that emergencies cannot always afford. Bottomline: In order for me to do my job, I have to focus on the reason I am there. This means “shelving” issues that are not imminent or critical.

On the otherhand, I know some vets get upset when they are called only as a “last resort.” Sometimes, clients say that.

“I am only calling you because my vet is out of town.”

“I just need a vet, any vet.”

“I wouldn’t be calling you if I had other options.”

I take these comments in context of the extremely difficult circumstance the client is in, the difficult spot this puts their vet in and the fact that I’m here to help. This thought process keeps the negative thoughts at bay. It also helps that I am an empath by nature.

8 minutes away

Returning to the ER at hand…I kept Susan focused, making sure she was in a safe situation, the mare was contained, and gave her a few minutes to call me back with their physical address. Caught up in overwhelming situations, sometimes you can’t remember how to spell your own name. In this instance, she had to find a piece of mail so she could read off her home address. According to GPS, we would arrive at Susan’s in 45 minutes. During the first half of the drive, the office relayed two other ERs to respond to. When my phone rang again, I recognized the number as Susan’s.

In my experience, when a client calls while you’re still in route, it is for one of three reasons:
– The situation has become dire, they are panicking and have lost all sense of time
– To find out where you are because it’s past your original ETA
– They are canceling the farm call for one reason or another

I answered the phone as google maps’ estimated ETA read 8 minutes.

“I actually don’t need you to come out. My vet just got here.”

This isn’t too uncommon that another vet beats you to a call, either because the client called other vets to see which would arrive fastest or because their regular vet returned their call. I will be honest, this is frustrating. I wished Susan and her horse the best.


Order of Operations

Determining Which Emergency to See First

When faced with multiple ERs, I prioritize based on severity, urgency and the potential risk to human safety. Numerous times, I’ve been less than 5 minutes from the ER when the client calls to let me know that another vet showed up. This ultimately ends up in re-routing, lost time and money, but most importantly, an unnecessary delay in rendering aid to other patients and clients. Our policy is to bill an in-route cancelation fee, but I have yet to follow through with this. With new clients that don’t have established payment methods with us, pursuing payment is nearly impossible.

I understand the panic and desperation owners feel when their horse is injured or sick. In a situation of overwhelming helplessness, the only help they can provide is getting a vet on the premises. For this reason and out of empathy for clients in these scenarios, I have not had it in me to bill them a cancelation fee. And then there are those rare occasions when the driving force behind a client’s actions are not driven by shear concern, fear and panic. There are times when a client’s motives and intentions are not upfront or even honest…


ER Disguises

Critical, urgent and not-so-urgent cases

The second emergency was located 45 minutes south, within a mile of our office. It was a choke, which resolved mostly on its own by the time we arrived. As we were finishing up this second ER, the office alerted us to another emergency. Now, the ER waiting list included a mildly painful colic, a moderately painful colic that did not improve with banamine, and a laceration that had significant, uncontrolled hemorrhage. Despite pressure wraps, the owner could not get the bleeding to stop and she feared the horse would bleed out soon. We headed straight to the laceration emergency, ready to face a chaotic, blood-soaked scene upon arrival. As we pulled up to the barn, I could hear laughter and followed the voices to a small group of people standing around a bay polo pony in the wash rack. There wasn’t a drop of blood in sight, and pony appeared healthy enough.

“I’m here for an emergency, do you know where the horse with the laceration is?”

A middle-aged woman and what I presumed was her daughter, nodded.

“This is him. This is Emo.”

For a moment, I thought I had made a grave mistake and navigated to the wrong emergency (the mild colic). I reached out for something to say, still confused and mortified that I had made this profound error. The woman turned to look at Emo, walked over to his right front cannonbone and pointed at a scrape…a two inch long superficial abrasion with only the hair missing.

“I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to lacerate his leg here.”

I thought I had gone crazy, but was much more horrified upon realizing that this scrape was the previously described uncontrollable hemorrhage. She must have read my face.

“I didn’t want to be waiting around the barn all afternoon, so I might have exaggerated a little over the phone.”

She chuckled sheepishly. The other people started to dissipate once the uncomfortable silence kicked in. On an untimely cue, my assistant came huffing down the barn aisle with arms full of wraps, suture and scrub kits, fluids, clippers and even a tourniquet tucked into the v-neck of her scrub top.


accidents, ambulatory, anecdotes, animals, associate, associate veterinarian,barn, #horse, #vetlife, #oncall, case, choke, client, client-patient,clients,colic,communication, conflict, critical, cut, death, diagnosis, disrespect,doctor, dvm, emergency, #Equine, equine vet, equine veterinarian, #veterinarian, equus, ER, farm call, field, health, horse, horse vet, #Horses, interactions, laceration,medical,mobile vet,new vet,on call, on-call, communcation, advocate, owners, pets, fear, panic, urgent, critical, ER, owner, pain, patient, productivity,quality of life,recommendations, repair,sick animals, story, suggestions, suture, treatment, urgent, vet, vet assistant, vet hopefuls, vet life, vet practice, vet tech, veterinarian, veterinary, veterinary assistant, veterinary medicine, #vetmed, vmd, wound, wound care,

You never know what you’ll find

Prefacing this post with a disclaimer: Graphic wound images are contained in this post.


After working with particular clients enough, you get a feel for what kind of emergencies they do and do not call about. Depending on experience, knowledge and comfort level, some may call for a tiny cut or they may only call when it appears their horse may bleed-out. And with others, you never know what you’re going to find.

One of our clients left a message on the office phone the night before. Her mare had sustained a wound to her haunches that she thought might heal well on it’s own. She described the wound as superficial, probably a kick from a pasture mate. She said the wound was not bleeding and you couldn’t see any real obvious wound. She didn’t want to pay an emergency fee because finances had been tight, so the office asked if I was willing to work her into the busy day. Fortunately, we were running early and finished up with the day’s appointments a couple hours sooner than we thought.

On arrival, the small palomino mare was in a pen. I had seen her a couple months ago for a face laceration, and before that, an episode of choke. The mare was always suspicious as we approached her with a tote of supplies. Almost an entire roll’s worth of tape had been used to secure a bandage over the right gluteal muscles. As I pulled the sheet of tape off, I saw the soaked maxi-pad that the owner immediately commented on. “I figured, what’s more absorbant than a maxi pad, right?” I removed the maxi-pad and was surprised at the severity of the wound. It was definitely a wound requiring attention, and not superficial in the least.

The wound at first glance.

An L-shaped laceration resulted in a large flap of skin. Beneath the flap of skin, was a deep gaping wound extending several inches into the underlying musculature. The owner must have read my expression because she soon asked “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“It is big, and it is deep. But luckily, this is fairly fresh.”

After clipping some hair, the large triangular skin flap became apparent

We set about clipped the area, scrubbing the wound and exploring the extent of the damage. Meanwhile, the owner wracked her brain about what could’ve caused the wound. Most of the time we never find out what happened. It is unnerving, knowing that what sharp object inflicted the damage, still lurks in the field with the possibility of a second offense.

Determining the extent of the injury

The front half of the laceration was sutured together easily enough. Dead space was minimized with a deep layer of sutures, and the skin was re-opposed with simple interrupted. Since some dead space existed, and considering the extent of the wound, a Penrose drain was placed. The mare was started on Excede, with the plan to add SMZs due to expense. Bute and SSD were also dispensed. The owner would continue on-farm care involving flushing the wound and readjusted the drain daily. Vaseline was applied to prevent scalding of the back leg from constant drainage that was sure to ensue.

Based on the location, a simple bandage was not possible. We put in 8 stay sutures that would allow us to feed a shoelace through just like you would a tennis shoe. This shoelace method, a tie-over bandage, would secure a clean towel or pad to the wound. Unfortunately, I did not remember to take pictures of the finished work.
In 4 days, the drain will be removed. If the skin flap survives, the owner will continue to flush the wound daily and may also end up packing some of the wound with gauze. However, profound swelling and reduction of dead space, did not allow for room to pack the wound.

It has been a couple days now, and due to financial concerns, the owner could not afford for a recheck. We will be back to remove the external sutures in 10-14 days, and next time I’ll be sure to take more pictures.


accidents,advice,ambulatory,anecdotes,animals,associate,associate veterinarian,barn,blood,career,case,client,client-patient,clients,communication,conflict,cut,death,diagnosis,doctor,don’t like people,drain,dvm,emergency,Equine,equine vet,equine veterinarian,equus,ER,farm call,field,future vets,goals,health,horse,horse vet,Horses,laceration,medical,mobile vet,new vet,open wound,owner,patient,penetrating woun,penrose,people,people skills,quality of life,recommendations,repair,sick animals,skin flap,story,suggestions,suture,treatment,vet,vet assistant,vet hopefuls,vet life,vet practice,vet tech,veterinarian,veterinary,veterinary assistant,veterinary medicine,vetmed,vmd,wound,wound care,

When we cannot save them all, but we can save some

Like many rescues in the area,”Starfish Rescue” used to rotate through all the local vets. Almost as if going through phases. Before I eve stepped foot on the property, I was warned ahead of time. One, their bill is outstanding at over $5,000 owed. Two, overcrowding. Three, don’t be surprised if compliance is low. Four, don’t get sucked in.

My first time arriving at the rescue was in response to a horse that was down and seizing. We never determined the cause, and he never seized again. My second visit, months later, was to recheck a laminitis case that my colleague had seen a couple of weeks prior. The mare had recently had her feet trimmed, and Maureen (owner of the rescue)reported the mare was still having difficulties walking. It was difficult to focus on the laminitis over the glaring neurological deficits. After a full neurological work-up, EPM was at the top of our differential list. With titers returning at >3500 with two subspecies, we felt comfortable with the confirmed diagnosis and began treatment.

Over the next couple months, I attended several more emergencies at the rescue. Sick foals, colicking mares, face wounds, terrible leg wounds, even a sweet gelding hit by a car…cases I will never forget for both good and sorrowful reasons. And trying to make a difference, while balancing financial constraints with high quality diagnostics/treatments means a lot of advanced diagnostics went under the radar. With a limited budget composed of donations, it is a different challenge all of its own trying to negotiate and prioritize which horses to treat and which horses could not be saved…especially when the rescue’s conviction stands behind saving them all.

Early on, my recommendations based on poor prognosis (septic joints, fractured joints) was unheeded. It would take weeks for the rescue to come to the same conclusion, with the euthanasia being performed by the same person who picks up the horses afterwards. A bullet to the skull can be an effective form of euthanasia, but when it goes terribly wrong, it can be one of the most inhumane ways.

6 months in, and I have earned their trust. Early on, I would have to defend every diagnostic, medication, treatment protocol and justify quality of life concern. Now, not only am I greeted with open arms, but their compliance with my instructions and view of my professional opinion, does not waver. It is amazing what time (on and off the clock), patience and a whole lot of energy can do for a relationship, especially a professional veterinary one.

There have been cases that tugged my heartstrings, and cases that I spent night after night attending. We have lost some horses and saved some horses, but with every horse, we have always tried our best. It was some of these strange cases that I further expanded on my skill set, performing joint lavages and regional limb perfusions. With money a constant wall we are up against, I’ve put in many calls to specialists and board certified surgeons/internists. I am thankful for both their time and energy, and the helpful advice that has led me to treating cases in unconventional, yet successful manners.

So, although I didn’t know it when I showed up at Starfish Rescue the first time, it would come to be one of those places with some of the most sincerely compassionate people I have ever met…and something I have wholeheartedly become thankful for this year. And it reminds me of medicine in general, that we cannot save them all, but we can certainly save some.

Case of the Mondays

Like most things in life, do something long enough and often enough, and it gets easier. Drawing blood, placing catheters, passing a nasogastric tube, suturing…do it often, with a goal of doing it well. Then, there comes the added benefit of confidence. And there’s no better way to appreciate a skill, than to have acquired it and then lost it. About halfway through a “typical” day, I was made aware of those skills I take for granted.


BAL Gone [every kind of] Wrong

It started with performing a bronchoalveolar lavage on a gelding with intermittent coughing over the past year which fluctuated with weather, exercise and environment. With non-specific findings on ultrasound, we proceeded in our diagnostic plan to determine the nature of the cough. We elected to retrieve a non sterile sample from the lower airways to evaluate for RAO and IAD. I’ve passed an endoscope countless times, and performed it successfully and easily enough that I consider it at acquired, reliable skill.

By the conclusion of the BAL, I felt like I had rehearsed for a performance demonstrating everything that could not go right. The highlights of this performance included:

  1. BAL tubing hit the ethymoids, causing a profound nosebleed
  2. Projectile, unrelenting spraying of clots across self, assistant, owner, trainer and three innocent onlookers
  3. BAL tube entered the esophagus, rather than the trachea
  4. BAL tube retroflexed and came out the oral cavity
  5. BAL tube severed by teeth when traveling through the oral cavity
  6. BAL tube #1 ruined, retrieved BAL tube #2
  7. BAL tube positioned correctly in trachea, cuff would not inflate
  8. BAL tube #2 leaky cuff confirmed
  9. Continuation of #2 problem (Projectile, unrelenting spraying of clots across self, assistant, owner, trainer and onlookers)
  10. BAL tube in position, cuff inflated, saline injected in…unable to collect any saline
  11. Added more saline through tubing, retrieved <40 ml

I was relieved when the whole thing was done. After all the above complications, at least the sample was collected and submitted. What else could go wrong? Then, I got the lab report stating:

Sample has insufficient cells, inconclusive. Recommend collect second sample for analysis.

This was just the first appointment of the day.


Miscommunications, mistakes, mishaps and misfortune

When not a soul could be found at our second appointment, I called the owner. Turns out, the appointment had been rescheduled to the following week…news of which, didn’t happen to make it to today’s day schedule.
20180810_195506-01241677396.jpg

Our third appointment canceled.

Our fourth and fifth appointments had the wrong addresses (showed up at a neighbor developement and then mistakenly went to the owner’s house instead of the boarding facility).

Collected the wrong blood tubes, forgot to dispense a medication refill, double-charged on an invoice, made at least 12 U-turns…

And the cherry on top? At 6pm, as we’re wrapping up at the last appointment and about to begin our 90 minute drive home through late rush hour traffic…my assistant hesitantly asks,

“Hey, have you been having problems with the gas gauge?”

I hadn’t. No one had. About 4 minutes later, the thing we were dreading came to fruition. We ran out of gas.


ambulatory, anecdotes, doctor, animals, associate, associate veterinarian, barn, conflict, creepy, death, ER, emergency, Equine, equine vet, equine veterinarian, euthanasia, euthanizing, farm, farm calls, field, halloween, horse vet, Horses, horse, humor, life, midnight, mindhunters, mobile vet, netflix, new vet, nighttime, Patients, colic, quality of life, vetmed, sick animals, spooky, story, suffering, vet, vet assistant, vet life, vet practice, vet tech, veterinarian, veterinary, veterinary assistant, veterinary medicine, vetmed, dvm