Raija, a 65-pound shepherd mix, howls in pain. He’s been hit by a 1600-pound truck, and his family sits in the waiting room of Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, fighting back tears. Good samaritans bring in Tubby, a longhair gray cat. He’s injured but fortunate, a survivor of a house fire that killed his feline housemate and sent their owner to the hospital. “We brought her here because we saw this place on TV,” they explain. Tubby is taken to the intensive-care unit and begins oxygen treatment for smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, an Alameda staffer, Dr. Steve Petersen, walks into the operating room, turns on a Lyle Lovett CD and goes to work. The patient, Cheyenne, a Rottweiler with a blown knee, has been prepped, and Dr. Petersen begins the surgery with a staff of six assisting, including the interns he supervises.
In another operating room, medical assistants have prepared Nub, a 14-year-old black Labrador, for surgery. Dr. Robert Taylor, 53, who co-founder of Alameda East in 1971, goes in and finds a potentially cancerous spleen, which he removes. “Bad news,” moans Dr. Taylor.
Like any busy metropolitan medical center, Alameda East, situated 20 minutes from downtown Denver, is constant action. It’s one of the nation’s top veterinary hospitals and one of the more than 400 full-service, 24-hour emergency clinics around the country. — and one of the nation’s top veterinary hospitals. On a busy day, the 60-plus staff of dedicated veterinarians, support personnel, and interns treat 120 animals, about half of them emergency cases Alameda is also the primary locale of the fast-paced half-hour show Emergency Vets, watched by 1.6 million viewers a week and now in its third year on the Animal Planet cable network.
Emergency Vets, often called the “ER of the animal world,” puts Hollywood dramas to shame with its portrayal of real docs, real animals, real owners and real emotions. “We don’t participate in staged events,” explains Dr. Taylor. The show touches a nerve, especially with kids. Nearly a quarter of its viewers are children under 12.
Despite the cameras, the vets at Alameda keep the focus on the tasks at hand. “What’s rewarding is the human-animal bond,” says Dr. Petersen, 37, a gifted surgeon with movie-star looks who was called the “sexiest animal lover” by People magazine. “It makes the day worthwhile when we return a pet to its previous health,” he adds. “Most days we’re successful.” Such is the case with Cheyenne, who, just days after his knee surgery, begins rehab with Wendy Marchant, a physical therapist who works on the Alameda staff.
Pet owners often blame themselves when their animals are injured. An x-ray shows Raija has a broken leg but no internal injuries, good news for the dog that tried to outrun a truck. Interns get to work, setting Raija’s leg and scheduling him for dental work since he has some cracked teeth as well. However relieving the guilt of Ali, the 9-year-old who let Raija loose, is another story. Dr. Petersen walks into the waiting room to update the anxious family.
In a nearby examining room, Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald, 47, Alameda East’s exotic animal expert and a 14-year veteran at the hospital, is advising two high school seniors who are worried about their class turtles. “The turtles are stressed because of the environment,”he explains to the teenagers. “They’re supposed to be hibernating. Give them plenty of sunlight.”
Many times, the owners are more out-of-sorts than the pets during the visit, says “Dr. Fitz,”who has a “pet-side manner” that would make most doctors envious. “I can’t always help people, but I can always be kind to them,” says Fitzgerald, a board-certified veterinarian general practitioner. Previously, he taught human endocrinology, and that too is a far cry from his days as a bouncer for the Rolling Stones. As the tour closed in 1978, the guitarist Keith Richards told him: “Get a grip on your life and go back to school.” Fitzgerald did.
Ernie comes in, a working police dog with an ear infection. “He’s a hero,” proclaims Dr. Fitzgerald proudly as he leads Ernie to an exam room. “To work here, you have to be an adrenaline junkie. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Fitzgerald’s 12-hour days are a mixture of tragedy and hope, but his nights are filled with laughter. He performs stand-up comedy at Denver’s Comedy Works some 200 nights a year.
Ernie’s ear infection should clear up quickly, but Tubby, the cat caught in the house fire, will take time to heal.
“Tubby still smells of smoke,” says Dr. Katie Miller, a first-year intern. Dr. Steve Colter, a neurologist, checks the patient. “Corneal ulcers are forming in Tubby’s eyes — caused by the smoke,” he says. While putting in eye ointment, Dr. Miller asks “Can someone call to see how the owner is doing? We need to talk with someone about Tubby’s treatment.”
At Alameda and most veterinary ERS, the welfare of the animal is paramount, regardless of whether there is someone there willing to pay. “Our clients are working class, not the rich and famous,” says Dr. Taylor. “The pet is part of the family. Owners marshal their resources, but we won’t turn away a sick animal.”
Nub’s owner is readily available. “There’s never an easy way to give a pet owner bad news,” Dr. Taylor explains. “I treat each animal as if it were my own.” But this time it is his own, the black lab is his beloved friend.
It’s no surprise that the doctors of Alameda East are all pet owners, many times adopting an orphan animal that they treated. Dr. Petersen adopted Buster, a gray tabby, “who came in here all busted up with a broken leg, but purring.” Buster shares the vet’s home with three dogs. Dr. Holly Knor, 31, who juggles single motherhood with long hours at Alameda East, raises her year-old daughter, Emma, with Kersta, an Alaskan Malamad; Kasmir, a cat; and Ben, a cairn terrier.
“Raija is not in any danger,” Dr. Petersen reports to the dog’s family. But young Ali is fighting back tears. “It’s my fault he got out,” the little girl says. Dr. Petersen interjects, “But it’s not your fault that the truck hit him. Accidents happen. You did a great job keeping Raija calm, and you brought him to the vet right away.”
An intern brings Raija out. His leg is in a cast, but he wags his tail when he sees his family. Ali vaults from her seat and runs to the dog, showering him with hugs and kisses. The intern carefully stops her and explains, “Take it slow…Raija is recovering.” With a timid hand, Ali strokes her pet, whispering “I love you Raija. I’m glad you didn’t die.”
Despite the inconvenience of having film crews underfoot several times a year, the Alameda East docs say they’re pleased that Emergency Vets is on the air. “The series demonstrates kindness,” Dr. Fitzgerald notes, “and it shows what we can offer, which is very close to that offered by human hospitals.” The location fees the hospital receives for the shows come in handy too. “It all goes for improvements, such as oxygen cages in the ICU that helped save Tubby’s life,” says Dr. Taylor, “but money is not our motivation.” Returning animals to health is. As Dr. Petersen notes, “The show will end and we’ll still be here.”
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