By Diana Simmonds
Vets are “in” again as they haven’t been since the heyday of All Creatures Great and Small. Ten’s Bondi Vet and its charismatic Dr Chris Brown (BVetSc ’01) is part of the interest; 2011 is the International Year of the Vet (celebrating 250 years of modern vet science) and Sydney University’s Vet Hospital turned 100 in 2010. And few “animal” stories have made bigger headlines than the recent research, published by Associate Professor Dr David Evans and Professor Paul McGreevy, proving that whipping a race horse does not improve its chances of winning.
After-hours care is rare and SAVES is a 24-hour magnet for distressed people and their animals
It’s 5pm and a quiet Sunday: not like Christmas and other public holidays when many vet clinics close, after-hours care is rare and Sydney After-Hours Veterinary Emergency Service (SAVES) is a 24-hour magnet for distressed people and their animals. Nevertheless, the cat ward is overflowing – a couple of unwell felines are temporarily lodged in the dog ward; and the dog ward is full. Then there’s the rabbit.
At 6.00pm a bundle of white angora with transparent ears and a twitching fawn nose is brought in: accidentally dropped by its owner; apparently not uncommon. Neither is the gallows humour so often associated with emergency workers: “I was on call once when a rabbit jumped right out of the consultant’s hands,” says nurse Sharon. “Broke its back.”
“No!” Unfortunately yes, of course, everyone laughs. This rabbit has a fractured leg – it flops uselessly as she is examined. It’s a case for surgery and probable costs of around $2000.
“And it’s an $80 rabbit,” says on-call vet Jennifer Chau, meaning she doubts the owners will spend on it.
At 6.20pm Jennifer is right: the rabbit is going to heaven. The owners leave without saying goodbye – the staff left to deal with the small creature with the dignity and compassion it deserves.
Meanwhile, oblivious to what’s happening on the emergency table, a Rottweiler with fractured legs and a plastic ruff around her neck sleeps peacefully; in the next cage a merry Sharpei is recovering from a mystery poisoning that gave him such severe gastro-enteritis 15cms of his gut was removed, along with his spleen.
“Want to see them? They’re here,” Sharon holds up two specimen jars. Ted gamely focuses on the jars; we shudder – but better out than in.
A significant change
Says Clinical Practice Manager, Craig Lord; “It has been the single biggest addition in both caseload and revenue to the hospital in 10 years. It has been a big demand for staff; before SAVES we rarely had a dozen animals in house overnight or on weekends. Now we have over 40 at any time.”
One is Pudding, a popular cat who’s sleeping with the assistance of drugs. She’s one of a half dozen car victims in hospital at the moment.
“It seems to go in waves,” says Natashia Evans. She’s duty vet for the day shift and is supposed to be long gone; qualified three years ago she’s now back at Sydney. “Ticks are seasonal, of course, and really bad at the moment. They love wet, warm weather. But we’ve had a run of road injuries.”
Twenty-plus years ago, I had my first experience of the Vet Hospital: a car hit my two-year-old Great Dane and his left front leg was fractured, but unlike smaller dogs, Danes can’t live on three legs. A young, newly qualified surgeon was on duty; she said she would try to save the leg, if I agreed. How could I not? Known as Mike, his registered name – Wang Choy (Valued Giant) could have been Beloved Hound. He was in surgery seven hours and in hospital for three months. His saviour is now Professor Geraldine Hunt, a renowned specialist surgeon and currently in the USA. Mike eventually died at the grand age of 12.
Along with Hunt, Dean of Vet Science Professor Rosanne Taylor, symbolises one of the major changes in a calling that now attracts 80 per cent female students.
“I was fortunate to have an inspiring mentor in the final years of high school, she was the very first female vet I met. She led a fantastic life, doing a great mix of surgery, animal rescues, wildlife work and animal health at the Canberra RSPCA. Veterinary science seemed my ultimate (if daunting) career, and one that was just opening up to women at a time when education, financial independence and careers for women were being taken seriously in my family and school.”
At 7.10pm yet another car victim: Teddy, an 11-year-old Maltese terrier. He’s in a mess; his people are distraught. In the ICU he’s cleaned up, examined and eventually stabilised. His blood pressure comes down from 180 and he’s carried to the X-ray room. Teddy proves to be a stoic as he’s sedated so that his back legs can be manipulated.
Professor Taylor again: “Our service provides more than just basic care – it’s more like coming to a teaching hospital like RPA – because its staffed by some of the most skilled, committed veterinarians in the profession, who have the support of a range of specialists, in medicine, surgery and other disciplines.”
Teddy’s pelvis doesn’t look good: multiple fractures. The view doesn’t improve with successive perspectives. Jennifer Lau is the vet on duty tonight. She handles Teddy with utmost tenderness; when he whimpers while his legs are being straightened, she quietly tells him he is very brave. Her thoughtfulness towards the injured dog is remarkable.
Professor Taylor is not surprised, “Their professionalism and humanistic values are a core part of their training. While veterinary students are among the most outstanding students (in academic performance) coming to this university (top 1-2 per cent of the state) they are also selected on the basis of a demonstrated commitment to veterinary science. They learn about all aspects of professional practice – including how to communicate with clients, and handle their animals well, as well as important areas like business management and grief counselling.”
In their final year students are assessed by staff with the advice of external veterinarians on their communication, ethics, animal welfare and client care in all of their practice placements and must reach the required standard to progress to graduation.
“I actually decided two weeks before placing my university course preferences,” says Chau, whose parents moved from Adelaide to Sydney when she was small. “So, definitely not like the majority of vets I’ve met who knew they wanted to be a vet forever. But I loved animals and I tried other things like accounting, arts and photography and I thought being a vet would be the most exciting and interesting option. I haven’t look back.”
Some are straightforward
It’s 8.35pm and time for regular, routine toilet walks. Some are straightforward, others need carrying; the bigger dogs with broken limbs are a two-person job: human crutches via a towel around the tummy; some recalcitrants insist on piddling on the floor, a student’s training includes a lot of mopping up.
Cats are easier: litter tray changes are simple unless the cat is hostile – few are. Nurse Sharon comes in sneezing – “I’m allergic to cats,” she sniffles. Truly.
Attending to Mietta, then, is not for her: Mietta is an elegant Siamese with a squawk to match. She has critical pneumonia. However, with four-hourly chest physiotherapy (thumpety-thump with a cupped hand) to loosen and help her expel the deadly mucus, she’s improving. For physio she’s placed in a miniature oxygen tent; and at first was not keen. But that was then and this is now: she hops in, stuffs her nose in the oxygen outlet and inhales.
Another of tonight’s cat patients is a donor cat, Amos. He lives at the hospital and his blood is regularly harvested. Cats’ blood comes in three groups: A+, B+ and AB. Currently he is himself unwell and being cosseted and fussed over. Normally his A+ blood is a valuable resource and is why he’s named Amos. Who knew?
Amos brings to mind another image: nasty experiments on defenceless creatures. Mice and monkeys were forever being liberated from unholy laboratories and association could taint a school such as Sydney, despite its 100-year history of producing some of the finest vets and research in the world and despite the fact that those notorious experiments occurred in medicine and physiology – not in Vet Science where students learn without harming animals. The School’s very emphatic Code of Ethics for staff and students also contributes to the sense of security and relief animals and their people feel when they come limping in.
A wonderful mix
The meeting of practical and theoretical is vital, says Professor Taylor: “It’s a remarkable synergy which motivates and inspires our work. Research underpins progress, improvement and the great leaps forward that dramatically improve treatments for animals in our practice. As a university after-hours and emergency service, within a teaching hospital, we make the most of the many opportunities we have to test new ideas, innovate, and progress veterinary medicine. People come here to work with us because they are passionate about providing the best of care for animals and outstanding teaching for students.”
Vet students at Sydney spend their first two years conventionally: classes, tutorials and theory. Then the real business starts. As well as the Small Animal Veterinary Teaching Hospital and Emergency/after-hours service at Camperdown, there’s a teaching hospital at Camden where small animals are treated as well as facilities for horses, particularly for performance and racing horses. Also at Camden is a purpose-built Wildlife Health and Conservation Centre, which treats Australian wildlife (birds, reptiles, marsupials etc) as well as cage birds and pocket pets. And the Livestock Veterinary Services provides field veterinary service for cattle, sheep, goats and ruminants across a large area of NSW.
“The experience is as full and thorough as possible for both patients and students,” says Professor Taylor.
BBQ-itis is a vet nickname for Pancreatitis – the illness dogs suffer from on public holidays. Sally, a tiny terrier also known as Worst Dog in the World, is one of Natashia Evans’s patients, presenting with near-death symptoms post-Christmas holidays. After a nervous student examination, Natashia listens intently to the diagnosis, offers advice and quickly identifies Sally’s problems: too much rich food and excruciating pain. She is in hospital for three days, studiously gnawing through a succession of drip-feeds and returning to health. No more ham, pork or steak fat for Sally.
Sally is fortunate, but could be more so, says Professor Taylor. “I’m sad to say there is very little funding available for clinical research on companion animal health and disease. It is not an area that usually attracts government or industry funding, restricting what we can do and the progress we can make.”
As an example, she says they would like to apply the exciting new tools of molecular genetics, like microarray, real-time PCR and nextGen sequencing to understanding complex diseases like canine diabetes, microbial infections in cats and to the causes of cancer in dogs and cats.
“Unfortunately there is almost no funding available, so the work moves much slower than we would wish.”
At 9.45pm a couple brings in a young Dachshund found wandering near Harold Park. It’s a mystery: she is in good health but has no collar.
It’s 10.15pm: a call from a frantic young woman. She’s been searching for a Dachshund for a week. She’s house-sitting for her boss, who’s overseas and has no idea how the dog did a runner from Alexandria. On the bush telegraph she’s heard that she might be at SAVES. The dog is Roxie and all’s well that ends well, although barely credible if written as fiction.
Roxie’s best friend races into the Hospital foyer, her name is Tillie, she’s a Maltese bitzer and is closely followed by her person: Professor Kim Walker, Dean of the Conservatorium. They have been out every night searching for the runaway with the distraught babysitter.
“Tillie can’t understand why she’s been going on all these mammoth walks,” says an overjoyed Walker. Roxie goes home. It’s 10.45pm and a quiet night.
PS: aside from the ill-fated rabbit, all the animals in this story recovered and have gone home.