This is a blog about a moment in time; that heart-stopping, sweaty, cold and confused moment you never quite get used to, no matter how often it happens: the middle of the night phone call.
Sometimes it invades a dream – you’re wandering on a strange shore, floating in a strange world, sitting on a train with the cast of Cheers, perhaps, when you notice the ringing in the background. Seconds later, you’re catapulted back to reality.
Other times, the noise bounces you immediately awake, as if God carelessly knocked your light switch.
For me, the result is the same, regardless – I’m confused, scared, usually shaking, and half-blind without my glasses.
Over the next eternal second or two, the pieces fall into place, and I start to remember who I am, what my job is, and why, probably, that thing is screaming for my attention.
A middle of the night phone call, for anyone, is never going to be good news. Something bad has almost always happened. It’s always a tragedy. That’s the thing about being a vet – you get involved in other people’s tragedies, and those tragedies always seem worse at four in the morning.
If it’s a small animal call, it means the owner has been worrying enough about their pet to search for the vet’s number, debating with themselves or their partner about whether they should wake the vet up, looking at their pet and worrying some more. It’s this fear and worry build-up that leads to this confused moment when your phone starts screaming at you, meaning you have to instantly ping from peaceful and unaware to calm, professional and reassuring, when, probably, you feel anything but.
I hate this moment so much I’m afraid of going to sleep when I work on call – I’d rather stay up until 2am, half-zombie, than have that tragedy blast into my life unexpectedly.
This always backfires, of course – going to bed at two o’clock doesn’t stop the phone ringing at three, and, in fact, just makes the moment so much worse. Plus, we all know being rational has very little place in the way we actually deal with this moment.
When I used to work in mixed practice, the fear was large animal calls, with its added pressure of a) finding the farm or stable in the dark, and b) dealing with something farmers or horse owners thought too serious to wait until they could see their preferred vet in the morning. (On this, even when I worked in mixed practice, sometime back in the Cambrian era, it was becoming difficult to be a truly mixed vet – I usually got the worst of both worlds; working solely small animal in the day and only seeing cows and horses at stressful times like these).
That horrible, shaky, cold moment has given me a healthy dislike of the telephone. I have never been a huge fan – I find talking on the phone awkward and stilted, as without visual cues, conversation does not seem to come naturally to me, which is odd because, well, I’ll jabber on for hours in text.
After many nights on duty, I began to see the phone as an enemy, and an extremely rude one at that. How many other objects in your life suddenly start shouting “Talk to me. Talk to me! NOW! NOW! TALK TO ME NOW”?
Combine this with the fact its sole purpose is to bring you bad news, and you may understand why it has become a totem for me of all that was unpleasant about being a vet – a symbol that any moment, any moment like THIS ONE RIGHT NOW, you could have the worst night of your life.
Just occasionally, it’s a false alarm – my wife once got a call at 3am by someone who was worried their cat looked sleepy – but you still have to get through the actual moment itself to find that out.
When you’re working with a nurse who’s staying at the practice, there’s another kind of call – one about your inpatients. It usually means they’ve got worse, and sometimes (rarely) it means your inpatient has died; then it’s your turn to make the worst kind of phone call to someone else.
Like many things in life, the fear of the moment is worse than the moment itself – hence my early-hours Walking Dead impressions. So many nights I have stayed awake, watching and worrying, only to collapse into bed exhausted, sleep fitfully and feel worse than I would have done in the morning even if I had been called out, all to avoid this fearful moment.
The dread of this moment has turned me from a borderline sleep disorder sufferer into a paid-up gold member of The Insomnia Club. In fact, the possibility of almost any kind of horror invading my unsuspecting sleeping brain inspired the opening of my first novel. This moment, or the fear of it, has changed my life in more ways than I would like to admit, it would seem.
Veterinary medicine is full of little moments like this… let’s talk about another one next time.