A night in the life of an emergency room veterinarian

CurrahVeterinarian Anne Currah has been working the graveyard shift at Southeast Portland VCA Animal Hospital for nine years, and this article shares a typical night. The hospital is filled with animals suffering from trauma, intestinal obstruction, pancreatitis and asthma, and the waiting room is full, too. Treating animals in such serious condition means dealing with death is inevitably part of the job, alongside delivering life-saving care. Discussing euthanasia is difficult, according to Dr. Currah, but important. “You have to have a really big conversation up front,” she said. “Do we continue, considering the prognosis and the cost?” The Oregonian (Portland) (5/6)

It’s 10 p.m., and although Dr. Anne Currah clocked into work an hour ago, things are just slowing down enough to conduct her nightly briefing.She walks from her office to a consultation room down the hall, where a day shift doctor passes off the patients who will stay overnight. One has an intestinal blockage, another’s leg is broken. There’s also a car accident victim and a pancreatitis case, plus several others.

“Go tell Watson’s owners they can come say goodnight,” Currah, 38, tells a nurse.

She has her night cut out for her. As the only doctor on staff at the Southeast Portland VCA Animal Hospital tonight, she’ll deal with countless emergencies dire enough to compel pet owners to visit the vet at ungodly hours.
The nighttime routine:

Tonight is a bad one for emergency room visits, and already the waiting room at 13830 S.E. Stark St. is backed up with asthma attacks, severe arthritis flare-ups and unspecified illnesses.The swing shift doctors have already seen twenty walk-in patients, plus the usual flow of appointments. The parking lot is packed.

When she arrives, Currah drops her bags, slings a stethoscope around her neck, and immediately begins treating patients.

Just like the emergency room, a brigade of nurses does the initial work of taking temperatures and checking heart rates. Then Currah steps in. Her first patient is an asthmatic cat.

“It’s a common cat thing, especially during changes of season” she says, flipping the pages of Plumb’s Veterinary Drug Handbook to find the appropriate dose of medicine.

Next, an old dog with a horrible ear infection.

At about 11 p.m., Currah gets her biggest challenge of the night thus far. An extremely overweight miniature pinscher whose arthritic back hips have him yelping in pain.

Currah’s bedside manner with the family is as professional as they come. She soothes the dog, who remains calm while she gently pulls his hind legs and feels his spine in search any hidden problem.

“It could be bone spurs or a pinched nerve, but it’s hard to tell without further tests,” she tells the owners.”

More likely, it’s a flare-up aggravated by the dog’s weight problem. She leaves the owners to consider whether they want to proceed with further tests.
A rare trajectory:

Currah is among the tiny fraction of people who have had the same career ambitions their entire life.

Before she could read or write, she wanted to be a veterinarian.

“That’s all I wanted to do, and all I thought about,” she says.

When fellow teens were scooping ice cream and flipping burgers, Currah spent summers volunteering, then working for pay, at vet clinic.

She attended undergrad at The University of Findlay in Ohio, then returned to Oregon for veterinary school at Oregon State University.

She got in on her first try, a rarity in a career track with an admissions process more selective than medical school.

Currah has spent nine years working nights. She doesn’t mind.

The long shifts — typically from 9 p.m. until at least 7 a.m. — mean she only works three to four days each week, leaving more time to spend with her three young children. Currah sleeps while they’re at school, and has time to make dinner and tuck them in before leaving for work.

Tonight, she’ll be on her feet until the daytime doctors come in to relieve her.

“Sometimes, you don’t have time to eat or pee,” she says. “Other nights, I could sit and read a book all night.”
Just like the ER:

The VCA hospital is a far cry from your family vet’s office.

Their relative level of sophistication and size is akin an emergency room versus a family doctor’s office.

As patients drop in, nurses write their name and condition on a clear glass wall. Doctors hustle back-and-forth from exam rooms to the wall, where they scrawl their initials next to the patient they’ll help next.

It’s organized chaos in here, but things usually die down by 3 a.m., Currah says.

Just past the entryway from the waiting room, a small, gray shaggy dog is in rough shape. He’s not moving–not even his eyes–and hospital staff members crowd around him. Things look bad. Bad is common on the night shift, where most visitors are coming in from car accidents or dog attacks.

“You have to have a really big conversation up front,” Currah says. “Do we continue, considering the prognosis and the cost?”But if this shaggy dog can be saved, VCA is as well equipped as any to perform the procedure.

There are digital X-ray machines and heated ventilators against the far wall, centrifuges for blood work against the front wall. The air smells of cleaning solution. Fluorescent lights shine down on polished linoleum floors. Animals recovering from surgery sleep in cushy beds with intravenous liquid drips hanging from the cage door.

Cold, brightly-lit surgery rooms and a dental station await use at the building’s rear, while consultation rooms are located just beyond the reception desk.

Room 6 is the saddest room. No operation tables or medical equipment reside here. Just a black leather couch, soft lighting and calming floral art on the wall. This is where Currah takes people whose pets are being euthanized.

Some owners make the decision easily, with the belief that veterinary treatment shouldn’t be pursued beyond vaccinations and minor health issues. Others will spend thousands trying to save a beloved family dog, even when success isn’t guaranteed.

Currah knows it’s not an easy decision. Like most vets, she has pets. Two family dogs, Honey and Chelsea, recently died. They’ll get another someday, but for now the Currah household includes two cats and a tankful of hermit crabs.

“We’ll get another little doggie, when the right time comes,” she says.

For tonight, she’ll get her doggie-petting fix in the hallway, where a happy golden retriever awaits his owners after successful treatment.

–Kelly House

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