Dr. Carlton Huitt tries to move out of the way when the Akita lunges into consciousness. He steps back as one of the dog’s legs makes contact with the bowl full of fluid he just pulled from the dog’s lungs with a large syringe. The container goes airborne, showering the doctor and veterinary technicians as they move quickly to hold the dog in place and keep her from falling off the X-ray stand.
“That tasted fabulous,” says Veterinary Technician Peggy Carr. “You get that in your mouth?” asks Veterinary Technician Teryn Jensen Parker, nodding toward the bowl where it comes to rest on the floor.
Huitt tells the techs to administer oxygen and leaves in search of a clean white coat before he goes to talk to Mishka’s owners.
Huitt is on the Wednesday night shift until 1 a.m. at an Albuquerque emergency animal clinic.
Wearing a fresh lab coat, he knocks and steps into the room where Victor and Judy Romero wait. Judy sits on a bench perpendicular to one end of the exam table. Her blue eyes glisten at the corners. Victor is standing and turns from his wife to face the doctor. Both are hopeful. “It’s not good,” Dr. Huitt tells them when they ask about Mishka.
Huitt explains their dog has virtually no lung capacity because her lungs are filled with fluid. He tells the couple that cancer or kidney failure are likely culprits. At the word cancer, Judy pulls back, her clenched hands tighten. “What would you do if she were your dog?" she asks Huitt. Without hesitation, Huitt looks her in the eye and says, “I’d put her down.”
It's about 8 p.m. back in the exam area, the rush in full swing. Most emergencies come in after people finish dinner and notice “Rover’s still sick,” Huitt said.
Veterinary Technician Dean Rehnberg administers oxygen to Mishka. He sits on the X-ray table, legs dangling as the exhausted dog rests her head in his lap. His hands hold an acrylic cone in place over her muzzle.
Rehnberg and his co-workers Carr and Jensen Parker, are to the clinic what registered nurses are to a hospital. According to the New Mexico Veterinary board, veterinary technicians practicing in the state must have graduated from a school recognized by the American Veterinary Medical Association and passed state board exams.
Jensen Parker says she's not planning on trading in the RVT prefix of a registered veterinary technician for the DVM, or doctor of veterinary medicine label. “The time and cost of being in school just doesn’t seem worth it.” Rehnberg says he has thought about more school to specialize in veterinary radiology or ophthalmology.
On one end of the kennel row, a large dog teeters on three legs, watching the action in the exam area and trying to keep his balance. A big patch of stubble stretches across his right side from his ribs to his chest. At the center of the bald spot, stitches mark where his leg was removed the day before. Veterinary Technician Andrea Villegas says the dog was suffering from bone cancer.
In the waiting room, Judy Romero, owner of the ailing Akita, seeks out Dr. Huitt. “We’ve made a decision," she says. "We want to be with our dog.” Mishka is wheeled to a front exam room on a gurney.
Mishka’s owners are ready. When Huitt arrives, Judy slips out of the room, head down and sniffling. “I’m so sorry,” Huitt says to Victor Romero. The vet explains that there could be some reflex actions and prepares to administer the injections.
Romero bends down so he is face to face with his dog. She was being abused when they adopted her, he says. “Easy, easy, you’re all right,” he says as the drugs make their way into Mishka’s bloodstream. “You OK, girl?” Romero keeps stroking Mishka’s head. “Bye, girl. Bye, girl.” Mishka stops breathing. Romero keeps petting her.
Huitt says euthanasia is something he had to get used to, but it's still difficult on some levels. “You don’t become jaded, but you pull yourself back,” he says before performing the procedure on Mishka. He compares his composure during and after the procedure to the emotional reserve of a funeral director at a memorial service.
Difficult scenes play out nearly every night in an emergency veterinary clinic. Why would anyone take a job that involves blood, excrement and sadness? It could be for the tail-wagging, purr-intensive reunions.
Bouncer, a small black-and-brown dog recovering from an allergic reaction to a bee sting, is ready to go home. Her owners, John and Margie Dorrance, look relieved and happy to see their pet—almost as happy as Bouncer. She wriggles and wags as she's handed from Dr. Huitt to Margie.
Veterinary Technician Rehnberg says his love of animals led him to his job. Since pets don’t have a voice of their own, he adds, skilled care is important. Rehnberg says when a patient comes in ill and leaves healthy, “it just feels good.”