At your beck and call

The clinic I work at offers emergency services, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There’s just one night of the whole year we’re completely unavailable, and that’s it. We’re not open all the time – but when we close there’s a doctor on call.

I wouldn’t say that being on call is the worst part of my job, but it’s definitely the most inconvenient. How it works for us is a client calls our number and gets forwarded to the answering service who will call the doctor on call with the information and then we call the client back. There’s no fee for us to call you back and discuss your pet – but if you want to come into the clinic there’s some emergency fees involved.

We all handle being on call differently… I tend to be kind of superstitious. Most night, you’re unlikely to get a call after midnight, because people go to bed. So I tend to always stay up until past midnight, and won’t change or take of my ring and watch until after midnight. I try to avoid doing things I wouldn’t want interrupted – I watch movies or TV shows I’ve already seen, I don’t cook anything, and I won’t have sex. I’ll go to stuff like baby showers and birthday parties at people’s houses, but I won’t go downtown (too hard to hear my phone),  or go out to a restaurant (I just know I’ll get called away before my food arrives..).  I went and saw Terminator: Salvation while on call, and I was so stressed out, with a cell phone (on vibrate) in each hand, and I will never do that again….

I’m on call while I write this, and I spent most of my afternoon on my couch watching season 1 of ER. I did some cleaning around the house, but mostly I just lounge and hope the phone won’t ring.

Besides the limitations being on call can put on your social life, there’s also the whole dealing with client side of being on call. I try to be patient – I understand if something’s wrong with your pet you’re stressed out and looking for advice. And I know sometimes something that I know is nothing to freak out over, can be very scary for someone who doesn’t know any better.  But there are a few calls that drive me and make me want to throw my phone out the window…

The people who just want to talk

Some people think that when I’m on call, I’m just at the clinic waiting for the phone to ring. They suggest I look things up in their file, and I have to say I’m not at the clinic. Or they say they might come in and are surprised when I explain I’m not at the clinic and need to actually know if I’m to be meeting them. But the worst are the people who have no intention of bringing their animal in but just want to talk to me. Now, if you have a legitimate immediate concern, like you’re out camping and your dog cut his paw and you want to know what to do short of coming back into town, that’s fine. However one night I had someone call me at 2am just to talk about her dog’s non-life-threatening condition. She actually started off the conversation saying she was at work, but was too distracted by thinking about her dog to get much done so thought she’d call and talk about it. I talked to her for 45 minutes. And I had to be at work at 9am. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we don’t stay up all night when we’re on call and I had been asleep… but dear lord I have never more wished that we charged a fee for phone calls…

The people who’s animal has been sick for over 24 hours and they call at 1am.

Monday to Friday we’re open 8am until 9pm. Those are plenty of hours to call in, see if there’s an appointment, see if you should come in.  If you cat hasn’t eaten in 5 days, you should have called 4 days ago and I’m not going to be super sympathetic when you wake me up because all of a sudden you’re worried. Don’t tell me you were walking your dog to the park at 2am and he got hit by a car but you guys played fetch anyway, at 230am, and now you’re home again and just wanted to make sure, at 3am, that the dog is probably okay. He was hit hours ago and you can’t sleep, just be honest with me.  And if it’s 11pm on a week night and you start the call with “he’s been vomiting constantly since 10am” I’m going to want to punch you through the phone.

The people with no money who yell at me

Look, if one of my pets broke a leg tonight, I wouldn’t be able to afford the surgery to fix it and still pay my rent this week. I get that money doesn’t grow on trees and vet bills are expensive.  I can’t even tell you how badly I wish there was something I could do for you when your pet is clearly sick, in pain, and possible at deaths door.  But I’m going to be honest with you: if you want me to do something for you after hours, it’s $100 for me to go to the clinic. That’s just the emergency fee. That doesn’t get you anything but my presence in the building. Exam fee, or euthanasia fee, or whatever fee, will be on top of that. At the end of the day, we’re a BUSINESS, and our services are for sale, not for free.  And no amount of yelling and crying will change this. If you tell me your rabbit is dieing and you’d like her euthanized to put her out of her misery, I’m going to tell you that  unfortunately out of hours that’ll cost you about $200 or more. Yelling at me that your rabbit is suffering and you don’t have the money isn’t going to make me do it for free.  If you tell me your cat hasn’t eaten in over 3 days and is vomiting and has diarrhea, I can tell you up front that if you’re not prepared to spend at least $600 then there’s no point in coming in unless it’s for euthanasia. If all you can afford is $200 and you refuse to euthanize, there’s nothing I can do for your cat. Crying on the phone and pleading with me won’t suddenly make blood work and IV fluids drop in price. At the end of the day, I’m an employee of the hospital and I have to bill for what I do. I have my own pets to care for and pay bills for; I’m certainly not going to start covering the bills of strangers who yell at me on the phone. And if you tell me on the phone that you can’t afford the emergency fee, then no, I will not go to the clinic and meet you. I have gone to management more than once after a night on call to confirm that, yes, when a client says “I cannot pay”, I have to say “then I’m not coming in.” If you tell me you have no money, my hands are tied.

(Now, I’m not completely heartless, and we try to do what we can for clients we know. I’ve waived the emergency fee on euthanasias for long term clients where we’ve been treating the illness for awhile and the animal has gone downhill. But there has to be an existing relationship for me to do this. Yelling and crying on the phone with me does not a relationship make.)

Anyhow, it’s after midnight… so I feel somewhat safe putting on my pajamas and crawling into bed.

About dottiemaggie

A veterinarian living and working in St John's, Newfoundland. I love my job, and I love my home. Professionally I am passionate about critical care and client education. Away from work I am passionate about enjoying life, spending time with friends, enjoying hobbies of all sorts, and exploring this wonderful province I call home.
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10 Responses to At your beck and call

  1. Susan says:

    It’s after midnight and I want to talk.
    I think I’m going to call you.

  2. linlah says:

    I’d like to say something funny about being on call but I can’t and not because I can’t but Holy shit pet people, get a grip.

    We are currently a one income household and today the our dog got taken to the vet to have a heart worn test because I had lost track of his dose schedule. I would rather pay for peace of mind than hurt the dog.

    • dottiemaggie says:

      haha, yeah, some people need to be slapped upside the head. Some people are more reasonable, though… I’ve had people call over things that maybe weren’t emergencies but they were worried and willing to pay for peace of mind. I’m okay with that. I’d be happier if I weren’t looking at a fly bite during game 7 of the Stanley Cup play offs… but it is what it is!

      Also, I’m so glad I no longer live in an area with heartworm… I’m so bad at giving Ollie his monthly sentinel :S

  3. Audubon Ron says:

    I don’t know kido, I always give good phone no matter what time it is. 🙂

  4. JaniceP says:

    On the flip side, I wonder if you as the vet know how much of a relief it is to know that there’s somebody you can call (and trust) to tell you ‘no, your dog won’t die from eating a half a box of Smarties’, or ‘this needs to be looked at right away’ vs ‘you should bring him in first thing in the morning.’ $200 visit or not, that’s the sort of service that makes me loyal to my vet for life.

    • dottiemaggie says:

      As a pet owner, I definitely get that. And when the callers who call about silly things are reasonable, I am more than happy to talk them down from their panic and reassure them. And if after discussing their concerns, they don’t care about the money, I’m quite willing to see their pet right away to give them peace of mind.
      I’d say 90% of my calls don’t really annoy me… and I’ll go many weeks without getting one of the kinds of calls I mentioned in this post.

      And for every unreasonable person who screams at me and makes a big deal out of nothing I probably get 2 people who call with similar panic and discription that is spot on. (example – have had a woman scream in hysterics that her cat’s eye was coming out of it’s head. couldn’t get her to calm down enough to find out what was going on, so told her to come in. when i saw the cat it had a mild squint and a rasied 3rd eyelid. Flushed the eye and it was fine. I’ve had 1 woman call in hysterics for the same reason… and the eye was completely out of the head. Have also had someone call calm as anything for a similar complaint, and the eye was indeed completely out of the head… )

  5. omawarisan says:

    Your description of the feeling of being on call is so spot on. I spend a lot of time in that status (in a different field) and never feel completely relaxed when I’m on it. Ever get the phantom on call cell phone vibrate?

    • dottiemaggie says:

      if I wake up for ANY reason, I check the cell phone to see if I missed a call. Then check to make sure I have the ringer on max volume.
      This past Friday I was on call and had the pager in one pocket, and my cell in my other pocket, and nothing in my purse while I was out at a birthday party… and I kept thinking my purse was vibrating, which was ridiculous, but I’d check my pager and cell phone anyway ;P

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