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Three Days as an ER Vet During the Pandemic


The inside line on life on the job.

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a surge in people acquiring pets, for better or for worse: Everyone wants more companionship, but it’s never been more difficult to take a new puppy to the vet. That’s where veterinarians like Sarah Mueller come into the picture. Mueller works as an ER veterinarian in Cincinnati, Ohio, and told VICE that she views providing comfort for her patients, and their “pet parents,” as an essential function of her job. But she has to balance that with the cost of care.

“I worry as the economy gets worse, what that’s going to mean for my pets, my patients,” she said. “Right now, people have less disposable income to spend on their pets. They’re not making very much money and there’s no aid package in sight. Do they spend the little bit left they have in the reserves on the extra testing or treatment for Fluffy at the ER vet? Or does Fluffy have to take a backseat?” 

We’re all likely to be spending the next few months having difficult conversations, and Mueller says the conversations she has with pet parents every day are no exception. Here’s what it’s like to practice veterinary medicine right now. 

It’s 10:30 p.m., and I’m just getting into my car to leave work—my shift started at noon and ended at 8 p.m., but it’s pretty standard for me to be here for two or three hours afterwards because of paperwork or rounding over patients to the next doctors. We’re almost never out on time with this job. I can’t complain too much today, actually. I had a normal (compared to pre-COVID) number of patients today, only six or seven. Sometimes there are, you know, 10, 20 patients waiting, and the doctor that’s been there before you is already clearly overwhelmed and unable to take any more cases. 

In COVID world, all of the communication and discussion with the pet parents is over the phone. I work at an emergency and specialty-only hospital, not a general practice, so I show up and just start taking cases. Pet parents drive up to our front set of doors and they see our phone number posted there, they call in and our front desk staff takes the phone call to find out what’s going on with Fluffy. Then, one of our technicians or assistants will come out, get Fluffy from the car, and have a brief conversation with the owners, and then take Fluffy in and take her initial vital signs. If there’s anything that deems the patient unstable, like a really fast heart rate or really pale gums, they’ll alert the doctors right away. 

Once they’ve done that initial triage, they call the owners back and then tell them the wait time. If the patient is unstable or in critical condition, hopefully that time is relatively short. But if they are stable, it’s going to be a while. We’ve had so many patients coming through since the beginning of COVID, that it used to be one, maybe two hours from the time an animal got there until a doctor picked up their case. Now, we regularly have six to eight hours of wait time between a patient arriving at the hospital and having a doctor pick up and take over their case. Since pet parents can’t wait in the hospital, they can either stay in the parking lot, or, as we encourage, go home, run errands, do something else. 

Before COVID, we wanted pet parents to sit with their pets in the lobby to keep them comfortable and keep an eye on them, and so we could call them in right away when we were ready for them. People often waited at our hospital for those periods of time and then waited again more for test results, etc, so it was much more like being at the human ER. We don’t like separating these babies from their parents, but I’ve also seen some unintended benefits; one is that people aren’t as upset about wait times,…



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