‘Tis the season to be jolly…and on call

Posted on December 21, 2017 by John Fishwick

Being the veterinary surgeon “on call” over the festive period can be very stressful, but it can also be incredibly rewarding - stressful because you are on call and ready to deal with any emergencies at a time when everyone else is having a day of celebration, but rewarding because of the great satisfaction you can get from helping an animal and their owner, be it a pet owner or farmer, on a day when your services are especially appreciated.

It has been several years since I was on duty at Christmas and things have changed a great deal, but for me the overwhelming feeling was of waiting for an emergency call to come in at any time and never really relaxing. I spent many a happy Christmas at home with visiting family and friends, enjoying a traditional day with them, but I always had a pager in my pocket or was waiting for the phone to ring.

But memories of some of the veterinary emergencies I have been called out to on Christmas day will always live with me.

A poignant Christmas

BVA Christmas treeOn a Christmas day in the mid-80s, I remember receiving a call from an elderly lady in Cheshire who had a very old dog with a long-term illness that he was not expected to recover from. Her grown-up sons had come home for Christmas day and they all decided that they simply could not let their beloved dog carry on any longer. At 1pm, just as everyone else was serving a festive lunch, they made the difficult decision to call me and asked me to put their dog to sleep. I did this with a very upset family standing around the dog and me, but we all knew it was the right thing to do. When it was over, they were so grateful and so relieved that their beloved pet was at rest that it made a very sad occasion more tolerable. As a vet, bringing closure to the family at that time was very important.

Welcoming a lamb

Not all calls have been as difficult. On a beautiful and frosty Christmas morning a decade ago, I drove to a local farmer in Hertfordshire who was concerned about one of his sheep having trouble giving birth. He was so apologetic for calling me out on Christmas day, but after an examination we elected to carry out a Caesarean section and a beautiful, healthy lamb was delivered. The farmer was so thankful. This is something that I and any other farm vet will have done hundreds of times on other days of the year, but, somehow, this was rather special. That same farmer still reminds me of this occasion and thanks me whenever we meet, even after many years.

Being there for patients, clients - and each other

Vets, veterinary nurses and the wider team work hard throughout the year, including being there for their patients and clients when needed over the Christmas holidays, as do many other emergency services. It is something our professions take immense pride in, but I know that working over the festive period can also be stressful. That is why I would urge anyone struggling at this time to reach out and seek help - BVA offers or supports various free and confidential mental health and wellbeing services.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my veterinary colleagues a very happy - and hopefully quiet - Christmas.

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John Fishwick

Written by John Fishwick

BVA President from September 2017 to September 2018

John is senior lecturer in Dairy Herd Medicine and former head of the Department of Production and Population Health at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). He is a former President of the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA). Prior to this he worked in mixed practice and he was once head veterinarian to the world’s largest fully integrated dairy company, farming over 25,000 high producing dairy cows in Saudi Arabia.