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Christmas on call: It’s not all about chocolate poisoning

25 Dec 2019 | James Russell


Being the veterinary surgeon on call over the festive period can be very stressful, but it can also be incredibly rewarding.

Working as a vet at Christmas can be a strange privilege. It is possible that you might get involved in some of the most festive of family times with clients you are more used to working with under very different circumstances.

I well remember the cow Caesarean during a Christmas afternoon. The farmer was happy, excited and full of festive something. By the time the calf was standing to take its first drink, I was part of the cake and parlour games family afternoon. I did have to reinforce a few times that whilst their working day was over, mine might not be and so no, I wouldn’t have ‘just another jot’ of whisky with them; but that was fine. As memories of practice go, it is a golden one.

The tough side to being on call

There can also be challenges. On a Christmas where I and a vet nurse named Laura had drawn enough short straws to be on duty Christmas eve and Boxing Day, we spent the two surreal nights doing emergency surgeries.

After a busy evening of calvings and a festive ewe caesarean in our only early lambing flock, we admitted and operated on a foreign body removal in a dog overnight on Christmas eve. We finished this in time to have recovered the dog and drive home, Laura to her husband, me to my wife and children. As I opened the door, not yet having been to bed, I heard ‘Mummy, Daddy, Father Christmas has been!’ It was a long Christmas day which photographic evidence shows I was part of! I was back on duty with Laura again on Boxing Day. Thankfully a quiet day but at 11pm, we admitted a different dog with a foreign body and already a degree of peritonitis. Surgery that night finished at around 4am.

Two dogs two days apart and two people for whom the whole festive period was a bit of a write off as we swam through the haze of fatigue.

I’ve never resented out-of-hours work, it’s part of what I signed up to when I joined practice. I will admit that this veneer of respect for that part of the role did threaten to slip with one 3am ‘emergency’ anal gland squeeze.

Me – How did you know they needed doing tonight?

Owner – She sleeps on my bed and was scratching. I wasn’t getting any sleep…

#BeKind to yourself and your colleagues

I was always proud of the vets and nurses we sent out into the night to represent us too. They invariably gave a good account of themselves and the practice, often in challenging circumstances and on occasion with challenging clients. As a profession, we are good at this. If an emergency is presented, we respond with our training and skill and fix it. It could come into the category of #whatvetsdo.

My plea to all of us either working or asking our colleagues to work over the festive period is that we take equally seriously our responsibilities to each other’s wellbeing.

If you are on duty, can you check out the Vetlife 12 days of #ChristmasSelfCare? This may help you with some ideas on how to keep yourself well this festive period. Please also remember that Vetlife is available 24 hours a day to listen to anything you may wish to share. Just call them on 0303 040 2551.

Similarly, if you have colleagues or employees working this Christmas, please find time to check in with them over the festive period. That quick call might just give them the boost they need as they just finish their second end-to-end anastomosis!

Thanks again to all the amazing vets, vet nurses, and support and admin staff for representing our profession this Christmas and making sure that animal welfare never sleeps. Stay safe and I hope that, like me, you can find the joy in it. What will you do with your days off in lieu?




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