Christmas in the ER

A different kind of giving and receiving
By Shea Cox DVM, CVPP, CHPV, December 2011, Updated June 2021

While many people wake Christmas morning to open gifts and gather with family, we ER types begin and end our day with a slightly different routine. For me, my husband Scott, who is also an emergency veterinarian, and our two Dobie kids, Christmas Day begins with opening presents at 4 am, ends with eating a turkey dinner at 10 pm—with “challengingly good” chaos during the hours in between.  

Working the ER over the holiday is one of those fasten-your-seatbelt types of experiences. Emergency clinics are typically very busy by nature, but over the holidays, the shifts seem to be on steroids.  The normal veterinary world has closed up shop, leaving us to be the first line of care for the patients of nearly 40 area practices. I also think the fact that people are home all day to observe their pets becoming ill or getting into mischief adds to the bustle. Combine these two factors and you have the makings for one action-packed day.

My 8 am shift begins with morning “rounds” and the concurrent consumption of as much coffee as I can down in that hour. Transfer of care of the hospitalized patients then passes to me, and it is not uncommon to have 15 to 20 ailing critters, many of whom require intensive care. I begin by giving each pet his or her morning physical exam (with some added kisses and rubs) and make a continued plan for the day, adjusting medications and ordering up diagnostics as indicated. 

The exams are followed by writing up medical records, interpreting the diagnostics as they are returned to me and making phone calls to the worried owners who have left their pets in our care. Adding to the ride, between the hours of 8 am and noon, I also treat each new patient that walks through our doors. Our skilled nursing staff triages each pet, meaning the most critical are seen first. As you can imagine, it is a constant balance of “who needs it most.”


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An amazing phenomenon on this day is that peoples’ patience grows exponentially. Having to wait for sometimes several hours to be seen due to more critical patients becomes a forgiven byproduct of the holiday mayhem, and for this I am grateful. Knowing people have to wait while I treat more critical patients is always a source of anxiety for me. I know worried parents are in the waiting room, equally as worried about their babies. Those are the times when I most wish that I could split myself into many.

Noon is the magic hour for me—the clock strikes 12:00 and another doctor comes on duty allowing me to take a deep breath and play catch up. I swear I see golden rays of light when the swing shift doctor walks through the door, my knight in shining armor—irrespective of gender.

Two o’clock comes around in what feels like a picosecond and with it the tummy starts letting you know you’ve neglected it. After all, a continuous oral infusion of caffeine can only get you so many miles.  And just when I think I’m going to hit the proverbial “E” on my body’s fuel gauge, the ordered-in holiday feast from Andronico’s arrives. I am literally stuffing mouthfuls of stuffing while on the run, but ever grateful to have the calories to catapult me through the second half of the day.

My shift ends at 6 pm, but in ER reality, 9 pm is closer to the mark by the time all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Then, coming full circle, I round my patients to the overnight doctor.  In the words of Sonny and Cher, the beat goes on.

As crazy as the ER can be, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I just adjust my seatbelt, according to the peaks of exhilaration and the valleys of exhaustion, because there is no other ride I’d rather be on. It is an indescribable experience knowing that you have forever become a part of some person’s life by saving their beloved family member or by sharing tears when you give the gift of a peaceful death, allowing a pet to pass with quiet dignity in an owner’s arms.

I’d like to share a portion of a card I recently received.  It reinforces why I work these crazy hours, upstream from the rest of the world. It reads:

When you have those days, or weeks or months, when you question what you’re doing in this life, proceed with the questions but please remember the family whose pain and fear you eased and—most of all—the dear dog whose last months you made not only tolerable, but joyful.

Reading this still brings tears to my eyes.

So, at the end of my crazy, draining, exhausting day, I leave with a smile both on my face and in my heart because there is no better feeling than knowing you were the one to make a difference. I love my job, I can’t imagine doing anything else, and being able to help others and their pets on Christmas Day is truly the best gift of all.


Photo courtesy of the author

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.