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A yelp for help

by Jeanette White, 14th October 2006

It is astounding what a dog will eat to get themselves in trouble: tennis balls, underwear, tin cans, pop cans, wedding bands, toadstools, towels, gasoline, socks, rocks, Popsicle sticks, ear plugs, Prozac, birth control pills, batteries, kite string, horse wormer, marijuana brownies, loaves of bread dough, and so much ribbon their intestines pleated. One dog downed two pounds of sand.

House and pet sitters take note! A tiny bit of prevention can be much less expensive than a whole lot of cure. Don’t let your charge become a ‘chocolate dog’ or worse. This tale of the plight of the patients of the Pet Emergency Clinic in Spokane, Washington state (USA) over a single weekend in 2000 will have your eyes watering.

19 November, 2000

‘My dog’s wo-orse than your dog.’ Diane Odell, a veterinary technician, belts out the tune while leaning over a large, bleeding rottweiler named Shady. Then Odell glances at Apollo, another seriously injured rottweiler sprawled out on a nearby counter under the care of a colleague. Actually, it’s a tossup.

While dogs across town settle in for a lazy Sunday evening in front of the fireplace or gnaw a favorite rawhide strip, Apollo and Shady have joined the limping, whimpering animals filling the counters and kennels at the Pet Emergency Clinic in north Spokane.

Apollo’s wounds suggest he’s been hit by a car, probably dragged a ways. It’s harder to tell how Shady got the 3-inch-deep, ragged gash in her shoulder. Gunshot? Cougar? Car? Neither animal’s wounds will be easy to repair.

Their owners appear as shaken as the dogs; it hurts to see a beloved pet’s pain. But they’re also reckoning with the potential damage to their wallets. Emergency pet care isn’t cheap. Ultimately, clinic visitors can’t avoid the difficult question: How much is my pet worth?

The veterinarians and assistants had expected this recent weekend to be busy. Nice weather lures people and pets outside for mid-autumn adventures. It’s hunting season, besides. That can mean thorns and porcupine quills, cuts from barbed wire, and sometimes gunshot wounds.

This weekend the emergency crews encounter all that and more, working around the clock to fix problems that send dedicated veterinary students slumping to the floor and teary-eyed pet owners ducking out the door.

And yes, sometimes clinic workers even sing childhood ditties about whose patient is in worse shape, aiming to tame the tension and adrenaline that soars with each ring of the doorbell.

As on most weekends, business first swells on Saturday afternoon. Many vets for miles around have closed shop for the weekend and pet owners are routed to the emergency clinic instead.

It’s worked this way in Spokane for 23 years, since about 20 vets tired of taking middle-of-the-night calls pooled their resources and opened the Pet Emergency Clinic. Now some 40 vets have bought into the practice.

The clinic at 21 E. Mission has 25 infusion intravenous pumps, incubators, and ultrasound and X-ray equipment. Workers test for blood disorders, administer oxygen and perform Caesarean sections.

‘Our strong point is our monitoring,’ says veterinarian Jeff Duenwald, who has worked at the clinic for two decades. ‘It’s hands-on, constant observation. We’re always looking at the animal – it’s right in front of us.’

On this Saturday afternoon, doctors work to the tune of a little boy howling because he hates parting with his sick beagle puppy.

Diane Odell hardly notices. The technician is focused on Abbi, a German wire-haired pointer who plunged into the bushes for a pheasant that turned out to be a porcupine. Her tender snout is a pincushion. Odell wishes the owner hadn’t tried to pluck the quills with pliers, breaking them into stubs. She also wishes he hadn’t given Abbi tranquilizers, which now interfere with the anesthesia. (See Rule No. 4 in the clinic brochure: ‘DO NOT attempt home remedies. They frequently make the situation worse.’)

At the other extreme, pet doctors are surprised by the events that send some folks rushing for emergency help. One woman arrived at the clinic at 3 a.m. Her dog’s problem? Insomnia.

Typically, though, the waiting room caters to birds, dogs, cats, rats, hamsters and guinea pigs that are sick, maimed or dying.

Shortly after Abbi’s owner returns vowing to never pluck another quill, veterinarian Larry Deaver pulls on surgical gloves. He stares into a Shih Tzu’s eye, swollen to twice its normal size, and prepares to remove it. First step: putting Supernatural by Santana on the CD player. (Deaver read somewhere music can lower surgeons’ blood pressure.) He avoids rap.

The doorbell rings and in rushes Judie Thorn, a North Side beautician. She’s clutching Jasper – a hairy little Yorkie-Maltese mix – and a half-eaten truffle. ‘Not the cheap kind,’ Thorn adds. Someone plunks a tiny tablet in Jasper’s eyelid – the clinic’s cure for what vets call ‘chocolate dogs.’ Chocolate can be toxic for animals, and the pill induces vomiting. Jasper readily cooperates, and when technicians figure the little dog is empty, they rinse out his eye and the heaving stops.

Of the abundant smells that waft through the clinic, some workers say this is the worst. They can handle the urine, the sharp smell when alcohol meets blood, and even the stench of maggot-filled wounds. But chocolate-scented dog vomit can taint a lifetime of Valentine’s Days, even for doctors who’ve smelled it all.

No one has to remind Thorn to hide the truffles. ‘Holy-moly! Sticker shock,’ she says, rolling her eyes at her $111 bill. ‘An expensive chocolate,’ agrees receptionist Geri McElvaney.

Jasper isn’t alone. Less discriminating patients have swallowed tennis balls, underwear, tin cans, pop cans, wedding bands, toadstools, towels, gasoline, socks, rocks, Popsicle sticks, ear plugs, Prozac, birth control pills, batteries, kite string, horse wormer, marijuana brownies, loaves of bread dough, and so much ribbon their intestines pleated. One dog downed two pounds of sand.

Spokane area residents could save many lives by keeping just two things away from pets: rat poison and antifreeze. Both are deadly. No poison-eaters arrive this weekend – just another dog who found the candy stash.

Most emergency workers thrive on adrenaline, remaining steady while pet owners unravel. They know the benefits of a calm and reassuring voice, which earns bear hugs from relieved pet owners they hardly know. At Christmas, total strangers bring them plates of food.

But that loud doorbell is there for a reason, just like the security camera in the waiting room. High-flying emotions don’t always dissolve into hugs. One clinic worker received a death threat; another faced down an angry man who threatened to smash her computer to the floor.

On this weekend, emotions soar in the ‘parvo room,’ an out-of-the-way ICU for pets diagnosed with the common, infectious puppy disease. People routinely sit slumped in the tiny room, rubbing the ears of sad-eyed puppies.

Cora Guin is there when Oscar, the Shih Tzu she’s owned exactly one week, dies mid-cuddle. ‘I’m so sorry,’ says Guin, sobbing while holding the gray puppy to her face. ‘At least I was here for you.’ Medical bills to treat the infection top $1,100. ‘You do what you have to do,’ says Guin, a portrait photographer. Later at her home in Airway Heights, Guin will wrap Oscar in a baby blanket and put him in a cardboard box in the freezer until her husband can dig a grave.

Back in the parvo room, Shoni Gray cries silently as she hugs Toby, her black Chihuahua. Watching Oscar die frightened her. ‘It’s terrible,’ says Gray’s friend, Lyn Hemenway. ‘As bad as having your own flesh and blood children in the hospital.’

Veterinarian Terry Brown isn’t surprised. ‘The strength of that human-animal bond is amazing,’ he says. ‘I’ve been doing this for years, and I’m still amazed.’

Technician assistant Sara Peterson shudders when people euthanize, even shoot pets rather than watch medical bills mount. Only a few clients carry pet insurance. Owners can be their pets’ best – or worst – advocates. But Peterson has also watched hopeful owners let suffering animals linger too long. ‘Some people love them so much,’ she says. ‘Almost too much.’

As Saturday rolls into Sunday, the drama continues. A bewildered housesitter brings in a friend’s very still guinea pig, hoping it’s just sleeping soundly. Well, no. But no charge.

A family physician carries in a Lab named Jasmine who paws wildly at her muzzle. The doctor’s wife had suggested he find the problem, but he balked: ‘It’s a dog!’ Upon learning Jasmine just has a stick wedged between her molars, the doctor blushes. Tab: $57.

Perhaps the weekend’s most grateful client is Edna Deiter, who awoke Sunday to find her parakeet covered in blood. Sassy had laid an egg … almost. Odell soaks the bird’s bottom half in water and slowly, gently works the stuck egg free, even saves it for a souvenir. Deiter, an 82-year-old retired nurse, happily pays the $114 bill but rejects the egg. ‘All I want’s my bird,’ says Deiter, chirping back at her roommate and traveling companion. ‘Hi, Sassy-baby! Hi!’

The weekend is winding down by the time Shady and Apollo, the two injured rottweilers, end up on opposing countertops in the clinic. Apollo, hit by a car near his Nine Mile Falls home, gets IV fluids until a vet can tend the wounds, which will require some 70 stitches. Phil and Dee Echegoyen withdraw $700 in savings to pay Apollo’s bills. In the past, Phil has euthanized two dogs with cancer, but one look in Apollo’s eyes convinces him this dog can survive. ‘It’s that kind of intangible that allows you to suck it up and spend the money,’ he says.

No one knows how Shady was hurt – until Duenwald spots a small burn mark aligned with the jagged shoulder gash. Gunshot wound, says Duenwald, tracing the bullet’s path. The injuries require scores of stitches. The job goes to Odell, who’s so good at suturing she’s always chosen to stuff and sew her family’s Thanksgiving turkey. Odell begins her work, joking now and then, ‘Knit one, purl two.’

At the front counter, Bonnie Perkins picks up Pebbles, a dog recovering from the removal of a benign mammary tumor. Like the rest, Perkins wrestles with the question: What is my pet worth? At least $243.50, she decides. She’ll pay the bill in two installments. ‘It’s making a choice,’ Perkins says. ‘Can I afford this? But the way I look at it, she’s our baby.’

Copyright 2000 Cowles Publishing Company

About the author: Jeanette White

Jeanette White graduated from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville in 1988 with a bachelors degree in journalism and a minor in psychology. Her professional career has included: crime, education and general assignment reporting at The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Fla. (1988 to 1991); medical, education and crime reporting at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. (1991 to 1999); and general assignment feature writing at The Spokesman-Review (2000 to present). Jeanette's articles and projects have received numerous regional and national awards.