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The High-Stakes Life of an ER Vet: A First-Hand Account

By Geoff Williams


Gunshot wounds. Victims of a hit-and-run. An emergency splenectomy. Dr. Jessica Brownfield has seen it all.


And when it's over, if all goes well, Brownfield might get a hug from grateful family members—or a lick and wag of the tail from her patients.


Emergency veterinarians tend to work under the radar compared to their human doctor counterparts operating in an ER for people. You rarely see a news reporter with a camera crew outside a veterinary hospital, reporting on an ill celebrity canine, like they do at human hospitals. There is no animal hospital TV drama the way NBC had with ER and ABC has with Grey's Anatomy. And yet vets who work in the emergency rooms at animal hospitals often deal with as much drama, humor and pathos as any other emergency doctor.


Brownfield works at Grady Veterinary Hospital, one of three 24-hour hospitals in Cincinnati, Ohio, but on a recent Friday night, when she was shadowed by this writer, she could have been any ER veterinarian at any 24-hour animal hospital in the country. She was at the start of a 12-hour shift that would go from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.


Being an animal ER doc can be a highly satisfying profession, but it can be grueling, too. It isn't only that you're working to try and save a pet's life, but you're dealing with high-strung pet owners and the financial pressures that come with trying to help your pet without decimating the bank account.


On this particular evening, Brownfield is examining Kingston, a six-month-old chocolate Labrador Retriever who has bite wounds on at least two legs. He was attacked by another dog—his own mom.


"It feels like some tissue has come out," Brownfield says to Dr. Ashley Barnett, a veterinarian who just graduated from veterinary school.


Moments later, Barnett is looking at Charlie, who is probably an Australian kettle dog mix, guesses a nearby vet tech.


"The owner thinks a chicken bone might be stuck on the roof of his mouth," Barnett explains while a vet tech and a handler hold Charlie down.


Nearby, a handler is looking at a guinea pig with possible mites while several animals sleepily watch from cages, including a three-legged cat that will soon be seeing an oncologist, and a French Bull Dog who is receiving fluids after a bout of vomiting and diarrhea.



"We'll do some X-rays on Kingston," Brownfield says to a vet tech, before heading out to meet with his owners, a married couple, Kari and Kristin Hageback, 24 and 29 respectively. Kari works in construction, and Kristin is a nurse aide. While the hospital gets people from Northern Kentucky and Indiana routinely coming in at night, when other veterinary centers are closed, the Hagebacks are from Cincinnati.


"They were wrestling over something. I'm not sure what it was over," Kari says, of Kingston and his mother, Knox (short for Knoxville).


Kristin thinks the 10 or 20-second wrestling match may have been due to the dogs leaving the room at the same time, and that Knox wanted to be first.


Knox gave birth to Kingston in this exam room, the Hagebecks says. They brought Knox here when she was having a difficult labor. "They should name this room after us," Kristin says.


In any case, the Hagebecks were lucky. Kingston didn't have any broken bone, and after treating his wounds, Brownfield determined he would be fine and could go home. In another room, another family isn’t so fortunate. They brought in a German Shepherd with advanced cancer and a tumor in his eye. Unfortunately, that dog didn’t make it home. And that’s one of the hardest parts of the job for Brownfield and the rest of the staff—having to break the bad news.


But ER veterinarians can’t let their emotions run amok, and minutes later, Brownfield is treating Sheera, a cat with possible constipation. But she is 14 years old, "a 2002 model," Brownfield quips, and she is a little concerned that Sheera might have kidney disease. Linda Grundei, a retired teacher, who brought Sheera in with her daughter, Kristin Blair, who works in childcare, elected to let her cat stay overnight for an enema, with the plan that Sheera would have a follow-up visit with her regular veterinarian.


Some owners, of course, can't afford to let their pets stay overnight. This happens a fair amount, Brownfield says. And pet owners don't always seem to understand that veterinary hospitals need to be paid in order to stay in business. "We don't receive government funding to keep the doors open and lights on when owners cannot pay," she explains.


Brownfield says she once had a couple bring in a dog that had been in labor for two days.


"This is way too long for a dog," Brownfield says. "She was very sick with a fever, vomiting and had started having seizures, likely because she was becoming septic. The owners didn't have the funds for an emergency C-section and hospitalization and were furious that we required money up front for hospitalization and surgery. They thought since we were an ER, we were required to treat their pet regardless of financial ability like human medicine."


"The man got in my face, screaming obscenities and calling me names, telling me I don't care about animals," Brownfield says.


The incident ended with the man refusing to leave and refusing to let anyone else come to the hospital, by blocking the entrance of the parking lot with his car. It was one of the few times the hospital had to call in the police.


But along with those downs, the job has its share of ups. Brownfield says that her favorite ER surgery is gastric volvulus and dilatation surgery, also known as GDV. It fixes a sometimes-fatal problem called bloat, which many dog owners fear since the stomach literally flips inside the dog.


But it's her favorite surgery, and while that may sound odd with such a serious condition, if things work out, there's nothing like the feeling that comes with saving a family pet.


 "You can take a dying dog and make him better so quickly. It's very rewarding," Brownfield says.


Even though Brownfield is only 29, she really has seen it all. She's treated pets that have fallen several stories out of windows, gotten sick from ingesting marijuana and anti-freeze, and has helped nurse dogs and cats back to health from abuse and starvation cases. She has also encountered intoxicated pet owners bring their pets to the animal hospital and some owners who were probably under the influence of something stronger.


But most of the people who bring their pets in, whether in the middle of the day or the dead of night, are "wonderful, nice people," Brownfield says. Still, when it comes to the ER, "there are sad stories, and it can be fun and exciting. You never really know what you're going to get."

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