5 lessons I learned from my pet's emergency

5 lessons I learned from my pet's emergency

My pet's emergency changed my perspective on the questions veterinary clients ask—and how I respond. Here's what I learned.
Jan 01, 2012

Julie Mullins, a veterinary assistant and staff training coordinator at Seaside Animal Care in ­Calabash, N.C., poses with her furry friend, a 5-year-old Airedale terrier named Jack. (Photos courtesy of Julie Mullins and Dr. Ernie Ward)
We all know the drill. A pet comes in for emergency surgery. Your team gives the pet owner the lowdown on diagnosis, prognosis, and recovery expectations. You explain they'll be notified when Fido is in recovery. The client signs the consent form for surgery in a shaky hand and leaves. Several hours later you call the owner to say Fido is in recovery. The owners ask questions—questions you already answered before the surgery. You calmly repeat the answers and let them know when Fido can go home.

The discharge day arrives and you take the owners into an exam room for the doctor to review surgery and care and for you to highlight discharge instructions. The owners ask the same questions again. You're so frustrated, you have to leave the exam room. You say to one of your co-workers, "They haven't listened to anything we told them. They just asked the doctor the very same questions they asked me. The same ones they asked him on the day of surgery."

The clients ask the same questions again in several follow-up calls post-operatively. You begin to ask yourself, "Am I communicating clearly enough? Maybe somebody else should speak to them."

I've been through the same frustrations. But I recently had an "aha" moment born out of my own pet's emergency surgery.

Jack, my shadow

Jack is a 5-year-old—and up till recently—97-pound lean chow hound of an Airedale terrier. He's my shadow, greeting me every morning before my feet hit the floor. One a particular Thursday a while back, I got ready without my shadow. Odd. I had to call him down to the kitchen for breakfast. When he arrived, he moved gingerly into the kitchen, head and tail down. He looked at his food and moved on by. I turned to my husband and said, "He's coming to work with me."

I work at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., as a veterinary assistant and staff training coordinator. I've worked there for five years and pride myself on the knowledge I've gleaned working under exceptional doctors.

I took Jack in for some blood work and radiographs recommended by Dr. Jennifer Bailey. There was nothing untoward about either, so I took him home. He continued to have no appetite and vomited up water. So the following day—my day off—was spent doing a barium contrast study. He just lay there, and the questions began. They were questions I knew the answers to, yet I still asked them: "How long will we wait before we proceed to the next step? Will he end up in surgery?" Dr. Bailey and Dr. Eliza Roland were patient, answering my questions repeatedly.

Jack demonstrates his typical greeting.
The barium study revealed nothing obvious, so we went home again, hoping to see some barium stool overnight. That didn't happen, and Jack continued to decline.

Saturday morning—another day off—I was back at work for one more radiograph. The consulting doctors recommended exploratory surgery. I helped prep, sedate, and set up my beautiful, weak buddy in surgery. One of my co-workers, Angie, volunteered to be the surgical assistant for the procedure, and I felt incredibly grateful. Dr. Ernie Ward began the surgery at 9:07 a.m. and quite rapidly discovered and removed the obstructing wad of cotton. He began to inspect Jack's intestines, and he called me into the surgical suite. In a somber voice, he said, "Julie, I will need to take out about 3 feet of his intestines."

Dr. Ward begins his extensive surgery to determine the cause of Jack’s illness.
"Give me a number," I said.

"50/50," he replied.

I told him to go ahead. He inspected the intestines further and determined that it was not in fact 3 feet that needed to be removed. It was much more. He called me back in again to break the news, to show me why he needed to remove more and to get the go-ahead.

He began to remove the intestines, and my mind swam with questions and fears. I called my husband to relay the information about our furry son. He asked a question I couldn't answer: "Is he going to make it?"

Three hours later, Dr. Ward finished the final suture on his beautiful—albeit huge—incision site. Jack was in recovery, and I measured out the almost 10 feet of resected intestine.

Dr. Ward indicates how much of Jack’s damaged intestines need to be removed.
Dr. Ward went over his prognosis. Grave. He discussed the importance of introducing food slowly when he woke, the importance of monitoring temperature, and the risk of infection. I'm sure he said more, but I didn't hear. I was busy recounting the times we'd gone for early morning runs and wondering if we'd ever do that again.

The initial recovery went well. When when his daddy arrived, Jack opened his eyes and ate a therapeutic diet slurry—a diet mixed with water to make it drinkable. He even lifted his head. It was the first thing he'd eaten in three days. Our boy was back. He was walking around less than an hour later, went outside and had a soft bowel movement, and got busy healing. We were elated.

Dr. Ward begins the excision of Jack’s intestines.
Sunday morning Jack began having loose stool. Explosive loose stool. His weight continued to drop, and a seroma—a pocket of clear, serous fluid that sometimes occurs in the body after surgery—developed that would gush blood when he walked. He continued on intravenous fluids and antibiotics and rested in the hospital. His appetite waxed and waned, but overall he seemed good.