People are often asking me about our On-Call emergency service and what that is like as a vet. What does it look like when you are on call? Do you have to stay at the clinic? Do you have help from an assistant? How long are you on call for?
What I can tell you about are my experiences. There is no standard for on-call, every clinic is different. I have been lucky enough to always be a part of a group practice so I have never had to be on-call 24/7/365. People do, and I think they must be super-human. I have always worked in practices where the on-call is shared so you are often on 1 night during the week and then 1 or 2 weekends per month. On call generally starts at 5pm when everyone else leaves work, and continues until 8am the next morning when everyone else comes back. Over the weekend this means 5pm on Friday until 8 am Monday. It is one of those rare work situations when you are excited for Monday morning at 8am, that is when help arrives!!
The emergency caseload of each individual clinic varies. When vet clinics are posting job advertisements for veterinarians they will often state the emergency caseload so that prospective vets can get an idea of how crazy the on call might be. That being said, there are often certain vets that seem to be “emergency magnets” ($#%! magnets) and others that never seem to get called. There are also different times that seem to have more emergencies – heat waves, cold snaps, full moons, Friday the 13th, any time you try to plan a dinner… stuff like that. Ask an Alberta vet if they want to be on-call during a chinook… the answer is NO. Equine veterinarians on-call are a superstitious bunch (if you didn’t already get that from my list of high risk times). One thing that a lot of people don’t seem to know is that we do NOT like to talk about on-call while we are on-call, we don’t want to say if it has been busy or not. We don’t want to talk about potential plans. And please never EVER say the word “QUIET”. I didn’t even like typing it. The “Q” word. Say that in a room of veterinarians and technicians and you are likely to get shouted right out of the room. Not “Has it been quiet?”, not “I hope it is quiet”, and definitely not “It sure is quiet right now”! BAD juju!
I will take you through 3 scenarios of an on-call weekend. In all cases I’m allowed to go home whenever emergencies aren’t happening. So I try to go home after work Friday and stay near home/in the call zone for the weekend. I don’t make any big plans because it’s no fun to cancel on your friends all the time. I have never had an assistant on-call over the weekend with me. At the hospital facility we had an intern that was at the hospital all weekend, taking care of the horses that are already in hospital, and then if emergency surgery needs to happen a whole team comes in for the surgery.
Scenario 1- A high- emergency caseload hospital practice in Alberta.
Friday at 5pm the phones are turned over. I would often work on paper work for a couple of hours at the clinic so that I was already there during the time when everyone turns horses in, feeds, and rides after work, that is when emergencies get noticed. As I’m working on paperwork I get a call – one of the wonderful assistants that works at the clinic is also the emergency call operator, “Hey Hun, sorry, there is a colic coming in”. So I call the owner, get the details and ETA. A few hours later the horse is set up in a stall, IV fluids running, comfortable, and ready for his monitored sleep over with the intern. I leave and arrive home around 9pm, scavenge some food, turn my ringer up, and go to bed. My alarm goes off at 7am – I get up, shower, eat breakfast, and get dressed before 8am. Experience has taught me that it is best to be fully ready for the day by 8am on Saturday. I get to hang out on my couch until about 10am when I get another call – swollen eyes down south of the city. My wonderful husband helps me make tea and snacks for whatever else the day may bring. From the swollen eyes I travel to a lame horse, then up to the clinic to check the colic, grabbing lunch on the way. The colic is doing well, yay! Spend some time at the clinic helping with bandage changes and catching up on medical records. I start to drive home for dinner… and a phone call comes through, another horse being referred for colic. It arrives at the hospital, we work it up, the horse is moderately painful but responds to treatment. However, he still isn’t quite right, I don’t feel like I can go home. Luckily I don’t get any other calls and I am able to stay at the hospital to repeatedly check on him, and there is a Tim Hortons nearby. There is a couch in the reception area where I can sleep (with the clinic cat who LOVES when we have to sleep there). Around 4am I can hear him pawing in his stall and it rouses me out of my half sleep; he is painful again and this time it is worse. Rectal exam makes me suspicious of a volvulus or a twist in his large intestine. Call the owner, call the surgeon, call the anesthesia technician, wake everyone up – it is go time. We get the horse on the surgical table, correct the displacement and twist. As we are waking him up I get another call for a horse that has an esophageal choke about 45 minutes away. It is now Sunday morning, here we go again. The day follows with me bouncing between calls, coming back to check on this guy after his surgery, and eventually making it home around 6pm and collapsing onto the couch. The on-call gods are kind for the rest of the evening and leave me alone. Arrive at the clinic Monday morning at 7am to check patients and be ready to update the rest of the hospital staff (yay help has arrived!!)
Scenario 2 – A typical MPES weekend in Campbellville
Head home from work Friday evening, just after dinner there is a call for a colicky horse. I go to see the horse on farm, treat, home by 9pm. No calls overnight (yay!). Wake up early, the horse still isn’t quite right so I go back to the farm to recheck him. Based on progress exam he would be better off on IV fluids at the hospital so I contact the Ontario Veterinary College, give the veterinarian there the details of the case and he is soon on his way. Afterwards I make it home, clean my kitchen, and then another call for a very lame horse comes through. On my way to the lame horse I get a call about a colicky horse in the same area. Colic trumps lameness, so I call the first client, make sure that the horse is okay to stand quietly in his stall while I go to see the colic first (“yep, of course”, I love horse people). Examine and treat the colic and then head to the lameness. Treat the lameness (abscess, yay!). Back home, do some laundry, make dinner, get to stay home for the evening. Sunday there is one call for a laceration in the afternoon, otherwise I get to putter around my house.
Scenario 3 – A unicorn weekend!
Friday I head home from work, make dinner, watch some TV, stare at my phone, maybe watch a movie. Saturday morning, wake up, do some things around the house. I wait until after the regular morning stable chores are probably done and then I feel like I can maybe go for a walk or out to the store. Maybe even meet a friend for coffee. I check my phone a few times, make sure the ringer is on… ask my husband to text it to make sure it is working… still no calls. Wake up Sunday, putter around the house some more or maybe get brave and venture out. Talk to my vet colleagues and describe the weekend without using the dreaded “Q” word. Then, wake up Monday and I’ve made it! A weekend without calls! Smile that all the horses are healthy and happy 🙂 On-call is a roll of the dice. You never know which scenario you are going to get and you always keep a change of clothes and some chocolate in the truck, just in case! As I finish writing this I am realizing that I am now on call for the next 5 days because I am covering someone else’s shift in addition to my own and my regular weekend. I hope I haven’t jinxed it!