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Ventura County

Real-Life Drama in Animal ER

Pets: All-night veterinary clinic displays all the emotional and physical trauma of a human hospital--and all the caring from its busy medical staff.


There is desperation in pet owners' eyes as they come in with wounded loved ones wincing in pain, some in shock, some near death. A cockatiel mauled by a dog. A kitten who lapped up some antifreeze. A family dog hit by a car.

Dr. Ruthann Conklin, who works the graveyard shift at Ventura's all-night Pet Emergency Clinic, treats them all with the same dedication shown by doctors who treat humans.

"Well, these are family members we're dealing with," Conklin said on a recent Saturday night. "They may not be human, but people consider them part of the family nonetheless."

The worried faces that fill Conklin's emergency room verify that. The pet owners sit with creased foreheads and dark eyes, waiting for word on the family pet.

But those waiting are also grateful the hospital is there, open all hours, ready to offer care.

"People who are pet owners really do understand the meaning of unconditional love," said Leslie Hammett, a 51-year-old Ventura resident who brought in a Shih Tzu with an aching back.

Drowsy from a dose of painkillers, little Morgan slept in his owner's arms. "They're like your children. And the people here, they really understand that," Hammett said.

It was that understanding that pushed Conklin into veterinary medicine. She's not just a pet doctor, but a pet owner: a dog, two horses, five hens, two turtles and a handful of fish.

And she thinks of them every time she gets a new patient, like Osa, a large, brown dog awkwardly wrapped in her owner's arms. She had been hit by a car.

Conklin notices the dog is in heat, probably the reason she escaped from her yard and was wandering her Oxnard neighborhood. Lying on the exam table, Osa trembles.

"She's in shock," Conklin announces while injecting the animal with a sedative and painkiller. Osa's owners, covered in the dog's blood, are caught somewhere between despair and outrage.

"The driver didn't even stop," one says.

As they work on Osa, a white kitten no bigger than the palm of a hand sleeps in a cage. Strangers found her sleeping under a car and now she's not doing well. They suspect she licked up some car fluid near the spot she was found. Or she may just not have been born strong enough to survive. Vets call that "failing kitten syndrome."

Emergency room assistants barely have time to ease Osa under an X-ray machine when Bonita, a pet cockatiel, is brought in. A dog caught the tiny bird between his jaws and stripped her of the bright yellow, blue and white feathers down her back. Only the red, raw skin underneath was left intact.

While the bird is put into an oxygen chamber about the size of a shoe box, a technician rushes in carrying a small black-and-white dog named Nash believed to be suffering from heart failure.

The dog is in spasms. An oxygen mask is fitted over her snout and Nash burrows her face deep into the cup, anxiously breathing the air. One of her long, floppy ears is covered with a cream form of nitroglycerin, and Conklin's assistants attach EKG pads to the dog's chest and back.

The machine's erratic beeps confirm the doctor's suspicions--the dog's heart is failing.

It's just before midnight, and the emergency room is bursting with activity. That's typical, the doctors say.

"I was supposed to be out of here at 8 p.m.," sighs Dr. Don Thompson, who instead was sewing the paw of a family dog who smashed through a window. "But in this business, you can't always count on getting out on time."

As the heart medications seep into the heart-disease victim, Conklin has a minute to turn to Bonita, the critically injured cockatiel. It will take $500 for antibiotics and other medicine to help her, and even then, she may not make it.

"It may be something where you just don't want [the bird] to suffer anymore," Conklin gently tells Bonita's owner, Angelina Ortiz. Ortiz consults her daughter, 24-year-old Tania Torres, who talks about the time her brother taught the bird to whistle and dance.

"It was really cute," Torres said.

Still, they decide to put her to sleep. It's the humane thing to do, they decide.

Deciding what to do with Osa will be tougher, Conklin knows. As she sleeps under heavy sedation, the X-rays show a shattered leg, broken in so many places it will take major orthopedic surgery to fix. And that will cost, probably, as much as $4,000.

Conklin knows the dog's owners probably don't have that kind of cash and she groans knowing the terrible choice the family waiting outside will have to make.

"It just won't heal with a cast?" the owners ask Conklin.

No, she tells them. "It's a terrible, terrible injury."

They ask to see the dog one more time before giving the go-ahead to put her to sleep. The owners stroke the sleeping dog, and as Conklin injects the anesthetic that will end Osa's suffering, they cry.

"We see a lot of death in here," Conklin says after the family leaves. "It's just like that sometimes. And it takes me two, sometimes three days, just to decompress from this."

But as her shift winds down, other patients perk up. Nash, the dog with a bad heart, is stabilized and seems headed for recovery. And the little white kitten in the cage has begun to meow--loudly.

"Separation anxiety," Conklin says of the little feline's cries.

It's been a stressful night. But Conklin barely has time to recover before another emergency calls out--a very pregnant Chihuahua was just attacked by a pit bull.

"Some nights, it just really never stops," Conklin says.

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