There had been a terrible car crash, and the patient who'd been rushed to the emergency room was in perilous shape. All three inches of him. "It was a dwarf hamster with a popped-out eye," recalls Dr. Byron Hawkins, 40, the ER's chief of staff. "The owner, a little girl, had it in her Barbie Mobile, which she crashed into the wall. Not your usual car wreck."
Not your usual ER, either. Sure, things get hairy at County General Memorial Hospital, the fictional setting for NBC's ER, but the fur is always flying at Cobb Veterinary Emergency and Referral Clinic in Marietta, Ga., one of more than 300 animal ERs in the country. Like the Denver clinic showcased on Animal Planet's hit show Emergency Vets, Cobb meets the demand for the latest in high-tech ultrasounds and EKGs for pets. "Emotions run very high here," says Dr. Jerry FitzGerald, 29, one of six full-time Cobb vets who treat some 12,000 emergency cases a year, from schnauzers with pancreatitis to snakes with pneumonia. PEOPLE recently chronicled six dramatic days of Cobb triumphs and tragedies.
When bowwow turns to "Ow!"
Vets treat Trooper, a 3-year-old golden retriever, for a skin infection before sending him home. Some worried pet owners "get so hysterical that they reach over the desk and grab you," says receptionist Pam Mabrey.
"Sunday nights are busiest," says Dr. Hawkins. "You never know what's coming through the door."
Snakes, owls and angry cockatiels
The 8-to 14-hour shifts can get frantic at Cobb, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "A particular kind of person is drawn to this kind of work," says staffer Dr. Dondi Dahlgaard. "Type A people. We depend on each other, but we also bicker a lot because of the stress."
A dog's worst enemy: the car
Technician Carri Haigh tends to 6-month-old German shepherd Samantha after a car broke the dog's jaw and injured her ankle. (She has since recovered.) Cobb also responds to slipperier cases. "We got a call from someone whose snake hasn't eaten in months," says receptionist Mabrey. "They asked for suggestions."
Vets examine an elderly Siamese cat suffering from advanced cancer. "The sophistication of technology here matches what you find in a human ER," says Dr. Hawkins.
At first hope—then resignation
Technician Todd Cain gives CPR while Dr. Pam Wendel works to save the cat, all to no avail. "We can do extraordinary things," says Dr. FitzGerald, "but sometimes there's nothing we can do."
A bird in the hand beats one in the Sun
Vets prepare to rehydrate Peaches, a 1-year-old lovebird who became listless after her owner accidentally left her in the sun all day. A trauma case typically costs $500 in the first 24 hours, says Dr. Hawkins. "There is pet insurance," he adds, "but I've probably seen a total of four people who have it in all the years I've been in practice."
God's creatures, great and small
Dr. Dahlgaard feeds a milk replacement to a wild 2-week-old opossum, brought in by a Good Samaritan after its mother was struck and killed by a car. The baby opossum was later sent to a wildlife rehabilitator. Many other stray animals facing euthanasia are adopted by Cobb staffers.
My dog ate my carpet—no kidding!
Doctors perform emergency surgery on Sugar (above), a 7-month-old Chihuahua who swallowed parts of a rug. Sugar's heart stopped briefly, but she was revived and is now fine. Toy poodle Alix (left) wasn't so lucky. After vets diagnosed her with serious liver problems, her owners sadly had her put to sleep.
Not only the docs have needles
Dr. FitzGerald examines Sedgewick, a hedgehog with a blood infection. Despite a stay in an oxygen chamber, Sedgewick didn't make it. Given tough news about their pets, "some people say, 'Well, I can buy another hamster for two bucks,' " says FitzGerald. "Others will spend $300 saving the one they have."
Breaking the bad news
Katie Rowell, 8, is comforted by her parents and friend Whitney after learning that her bunny Thumper had a bacterial infection and would be euthanatized. "It's never easy," says Dr. FitzGerald. "But I will sit with an animal until he goes to sleep."
Catching (what else?) a quick catnap
Some shut-eye in a clinic office alongside her dogs Hannah, a rottweiler (left), and Georgia, a boxer, helps Dr. Dahlgaard make it through her overnight shift. Being a vet "is what I've always wanted to do," she says. "Every animal that comes in really, really needs you." As receptionist Mabrey explains, "The best part of the job is when owners who arrive all upset go home smiling."
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