Inside the ER

Their stories are heartwarming and heartbreaking, and more than 10,000 of them play out in the emergency room of the Foster Hospital every year

The waiting room at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals is packed with people and their pets on this Saturday night. On the TV, the Red Sox, still in playoff contention, are up against their archrivals from New York. No one is watching. The real drama is unfolding in the emergency room, where veterinarians, technicians, students and others work in controlled chaos to care for animals in crisis.

It’s only 5:30 p.m., but the staff is already handling 13 cases. Much like a traffic controller juggling jets at a busy urban airport, the lead veterinarian calls out directions to the ER staff. There’s the ever-present soundtrack of technology, and people, and sometimes, the quiet whimper of someone’s pet.

A pulse oximeter beeps insistently as it measures the oxygen in a dog’s blood. A student crouches by a kennel, murmuring sweetly to an anxious dog that was injured after it accidentally got tangled in its lead. Two veterinary technicians soothe an unhappy cat as they replace the dressing on the laceration that has scored the length of its back.

Then Sarkis arrives, so feverish and weak that the German shepherd can barely stand. His owner, Anthony Jetmore, had rushed the dog 40 miles from his home in Stafford Springs, Conn.

Sarkis instantly commands the attention of several veterinarians, veterinary technicians and students. In a swirl of blue scrubs, the team jumps into action—administering intravenous fluids and antibiotics, hanging the dog’s X-rays on a light board so the images are crisp in relief, and studying a cytology report to assess the potential causes of the excess fluid in the dog’s abdomen and chest. The diagnosis: a septic abdomen, potentially fatal. A bacterial infection and blood clots cause the fluid buildup in the stomach and chest, which is why he’s having trouble breathing.

During a week in the intensive care unit, the young dog will undergo lifesaving surgery to repair a bowel tear, and a course of clot-busting drugs. It is a happy outcome. “Sarkis is doing great now,” reports Jetmore. “But he’s really lucky to be alive.”

Like most pet owners, Jetmore never expected to end up at the ER. But the chances of a pet needing emergency care are actually quite high: One out of every 10 cats and dogs visits the ER each year, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The Foster Hospital ER treats more than 10,000 small animals each year—from guinea pigs to show dogs—and is home to the country’s largest training program in emergency veterinary medicine. Some ER patients are very sick pets that their regular veterinarians refer to Tufts for intensive care. Others arrive after experiencing an accident or other trauma or suddenly becoming gravely ill. The Foster Hospital ER staff also consults with an array of veterinary specialists, including ophthalmologists, neurologists and cardiologists.

When it comes to deciding whether to rush a pet to the emergency room, owners should trust their instincts, says Armelle de Laforcade, V97, who heads the emergency service at the Cummings School’s Foster Hospital. Some indicators that a pet needs emergency care include difficulty walking or breathing, collapse, difficulty urinating, weakness, vomiting or diarrhea, lack of appetite, heat stress or seizures.

“You never know what type of day it’s going to be,” says de Laforcade. “You may see fulfilling cases, ones with heartwarming endings. But you also have days when it feels like you put all your patients to sleep.”

“It’s hard,” adds senior resident Adam Porter, V08. “Most of the animals that come through the door are very sick,” he says. “I think if you can give people solace during a difficult time, that’s as important as any other part of the job.”

This article also appears in the Fall 2011 Tufts Veterinary Medicine magazine.

Genevieve Rajewski can be reached at

Alonso Nichols can be reached at

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