WARREN — Prior to this past Memorial Day weekend, if your Fido ended up with a muzzle full of porcupine quills after a midnight romp for post-dinner relief, you had to roust your veterinarian out of bed to help your fur-kid. And if you were the veterinarian responding to that emergency, which can take hours to mitigate, you likely spent the previous 8-10 hours handling a variety of pet health cases, and had another 8-10 hours of scheduled cases to tend to the following day.
Porcupines are most active at dawn and dusk, and during the summer, there are a lot more dogs outside at those times, especially during the weekends. And removing porcupine quills from a pet is not a DIY job.
But porcupine quills aren't the only situation that veterinarians like Dr. Bjorn Lee, owner of PenBay Veterinary Association, lists as his top five, often after-hour "emergencies."
"Gastric dilatation volvulus, or bloat, is the scariest emergency we see, as it's a big surgery to repair a stomach that has become twisted and cut off the blood supply, and it requires technicians to come in and help me," said Lee. "We get most calls for GDV between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., after the dog has eaten and the owner starts to notice a problem."
For cats, urinary obstructions, especially in young male indoor cats, is the most common emergency, and while porcupine quills are one of the top five for dogs, toxicity, lacerations, allergic reactions, and excessive vomiting and diarrhea are up there as the most common," said Lee.
For Lee, and a group of 13 other Midcoast veterinarians, not only was May 22 the opening day of their new Midcoast Animal Emergency Clinic in Warren, it signaled a new era in providing emergency care to pets.
"Seven years ago, most people were covering their own calls after hours," said Lee. "Vets were either on call all the time, or if they had another associate, you were on call one week, and off the next. Either way, it really affects your life."
As veterinary businesses grow and the summer population expands, Lee said it can be really crazy for long stretches.
"You can be in the hospital all day, or all night. And then if I have an overnight emergency on a Monday night, I still have to be there for day surgeries the following day," said Lee.
In the recent past, Lee said local practices started to group together, and in Camden and Rockport, there were two or three practice groups that shared the on-call duties.
But that came with its own set of issues, because the base of potential established patients needing emergency care was larger. It also meant working nights and weekends, and being on call for periods of time, but those times were a known entity and the veterinarians could schedule their patients' surgeries with more confidence they would not have been called to an emergency the night before.
Realizing that the area needed a more dedicated emergency clinics for animals, that there was a need for more veterinarians to contribute to the care and that there were more veterinarians wanting to be involved in such an organization, Lee said a meeting was held in the fall of 2014 and 18 veterinarians showed up.
"We thought, wow, this is great, and we'll site this in Rockland, thinking it was the biggest population but still accessible to people along the coast, in Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties," said Bjorn.
One of the veterinarians who attended that meeting was Dr. Dean Domeyer of Boothbay Animal Hospital. Lee said that Domeyer told the group that for his patients, traveling to Rockland was too far.
With a strong commitment to collaborate, Lee said the site search turned to Waldoboro and Warren to be more central to walk-in clientele and participating/member veterinarian clinic patients between Belfast and Wiscasset.
"While looking for properties in the area, we realized this property here was available and it was going to auction in a week. So Dean and I said there is no way we can get X number of vets to cooperate in such a short period of time, so we purchase building ourselves," said Lee. "We initially just hoped this whole plan would work out, realizing that we just bought a building, but it actually accelerated making the clinic possible because we are partners in the real estate, it made it less of an investment for everybody else to get the clinic up and running."
With Domeyer and Lee purchasing the building on their own, Lee said it took real estate out of the operating agreement, making it a lot simpler and safer investment for everybody else.
"The clinic is at the back of the building, and we have rental space up front, hopefully for a day business to operate out of," said Lee.
Lee said that by his count, there are 36 veterinarians in the service area, among 18 practices, and that includes house call vets and three doctor-fixed facilities. Out of those, it came down to 14 veterinarians who are committed to the emergency clinic, and that represents nine member hospitals in the area.
"Not all the area hospitals decided to join and help and commit finances, but there are 14 that said, yes, we want to make this happen and are willing to put the money in," said Lee. "Part of this is we would not like to be on call, but part of this just recognizing a need and saying the service we are not offering to our patients is optimal, so we are trying to elevate the standard of care for the community."
The emergency clinic will be staffed nights and weekends by one doctor and one technician.
Lee said that one full time veterinarian has been hired, Dr. Christy Peters, whose husband, Travis Peters, is going to be one of the technicians on staff. The other two technicians are Diane Hoch and Amanda Zielinski.
Dr. Peters has been hired to cover three of the nine shifts per week, which include seven nights and two days, Saturdays and Sundays.
The remaining six shifts will be covered by the member veterinarians, meaning each will cover one shift every two weeks.
"It's better than being on call every single night, and it's also what makes this clinic possible," said Lee. "Financially, we can't hire three full time vets, because we are a start-up."
He said thus far, the clinic has been opened, staffed and equipped without any financing. Lee said most of the members are donating unused and/or excess equipment to get it up and running.
What is a Pet Emergency?
Some examples of emergencies include:
Rapid or difficulty breathing
Decreased energy level
Repeated gagging or vomiting
Vomiting and/or diarrhea for > 24 hours or vomiting unusual material
Inability to use limbs properly, staggering and/or loss of balance
Wounds or trauma
Embedded porcupine quills
Lack of urination or bloody urine
Poison exposure or ingestion
"We have no idea how much we will generate in business. We have projections, but we are basically unpaid for the time we are committing to cover all of these overnight shifts. And hopefully, it will be something that is successful and we will be able to hire more support staff and vets to staff it, so the members can eventually step back," said Lee.
Lee cited a variety of reasons for starting up the clinic, and for the groundswell of support from the members. He also said that although there were many other area veterinarians who did not join them, it wasn't because they didn't see the need, but rather had prior commitments, other interests or precluding financial constraints or concerns.
"We already have a long list of doctors who have offered to be on call for shifts, should one of us not be able to cover ours, which is really helpful," said Lee. "And I totally understand why any or all made their decisions, and they will still be turning to the clinic when they need it."
Reasons for creating the emergency clinic include peace of mind for people moving to the area from larger areas, where 24-hour pet clinics are common and easy to find.
Also, there is the big question of what options a tourist has in the middle of the night, or even during the weekday, when their traveling pet has a problem.
"We are so busy covering our own practices, that we can't see non-emergencies, so that person on vacation with a dog can't reach somebody if something goes wrong. They have to go to one of the other emergency hospitals, which means Portland, Lewiston, Saco, Brewer or Augusta," said Lee. "That's 90 minutes to two hours. Now we can help these people, and it's why we believe in it and are willing to sacrifice some money and time to get it off the ground."
Another reason that a local Midcoast animal emergency clinic is needed is because it can provide overnight care and monitoring for post-surgical pets.
Lee said that before the emergency clinic, a pet owner had two choices. Either drive their pet to Portland or Bangor, which have 24-hour monitoring, or let their local veterinarian set their pet up for the night and leave them alone overnight.
"They are often there alone," said Lee. "Often we will drive back in and check on them at 9 or 10 or 11 p.m., but it would be hard for the owner knowing that's what we were doing and hard for us too, both because of the interruption in the night and we are constantly worrying about the patient. But we just can't staff and be there all night long."
Now, Lee said he knows he can schedule surgery and move the patient to the emergency clinic and have his own peace of mind. It's optimal for everyone, he said.
Finally, but certainly not the only other reason, Lee said that by not having an emergency clinic nearby, all of the area veterinarian practices and hospitals suffered from attracting and retaining good staff.
"We are not as attractive because they can say, I don't want to do overnight emergencies, I don't want to work weekends, or be on call. So it's difficult to get good veterinarians to work in our practices and we think this will help us, as practice owners, to attract better veterinarian associates," said Lee.
"And for an owner who is maybe looking to sell their practice, the same thing applies. Their practice looks a lot more attractive because a potential buyer knows they won't be on call, going it alone," said Lee.
The support system for the veterinarians is a big component of what the member doctors see as a successful formula, and the confidence in the after-hours care they can share with their patients will also go a long way to supporting the community's needs.
"With the e-clinic, people will know there is a doctor and a technician there to help them, anytime," said Lee. "They bring their pet in and the diagnosis is done right away. If surgery is needed, they can do it there, and if it's just a matter of patching them up or supporting them until they get to their regular veterinarian, then everybody wins."
Although an appointment is not needed, the clinic requests a telephone call at 273-1100 to alert the staff to your emergency so that they can prepare properly for your pet's arrival.
Midcoast Animal Emergency Clinic member hospitals include:
— All Creatures Veterinary Hospital (Rockport)
— Atlantic Veterinary Care (Damariscotta)
— Blake Veterinary Hospital (Northport)
— Boothbay Animal Hospital (Boothbay)
— The Camden Hospital for Animals (Camden)
— Coastal Veterinary Care (Wiscasset)
— Damariscotta Veterinary Clinic (Damariscotta)
— Harbor Road Veterinary Hospital (South Thomaston)
— Medomak Veterinary Services (Waldoboro)
— PenBay Veterinary Associates (Rockport)
• Midcoast Animal Emergency Clinic website
• Midcoast Animal Emergency Clinic on Facebook
Reach Editorial Director Holly S. Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.