Last summer I moved to Orcas Island off the coast of NW Washington near Bellingham. The only way to get there is to take a ferry from Anacortes.
When I drove up to catch the ferry to Orcas to look at houses, I would pass the Pet Emergency Center on Highway 536 between Mt. Vernon and Anacortes. Because Orcas doesn’t have an animal hospital, it would be the closest 24/7 emergency vet hospital near me.
Whenever I drove past, I wondered how difficult it would be to get one of my dogs there if it had a medical emergency.
Well, now I know.
A Labrador Retriever Turns Down Food? Inconceivable!
Last month, Haley, my 7-year-old yellow lab, threw up grass a couple of nights in a row. She’s never thrown up grass after eating it before so I was concerned when she did it twice.
The morning after she threw up the second time she vomited up her entire breakfast. I thought she just had an upset stomach, so for her afternoon meal I made her chicken and rice.
She just looked at the bowl and walked away.
For those of you who have never been around Labs, they are food-obsessed eating machines. If Oliver Twist had been a Lab, he would never have hesitated about asking for more gruel.
Because Haley’s voraciousness is far greater than that of any other Lab I’ve ever seen, her refusal of food raised a HUGE red flag for me. I immediately made an appointment the next day with the local vet, Orcas Veterinary Service.
Vet Visit is Inconclusive
After the vet took X-rays she called me to say she thought Haley had some sort of an obstruction in her intestines. Because they didn’t have the equipment to take a clear picture of the blockage, she said I should take Haley to an emergency vet immediately to verify her diagnosis.
At this point the challenge of getting emergency care for my dog on an island changed from a small ember of concern to a roaring forest fire of panic.
When I lived in Seattle I could get to my preferred emergency animal hospital in 20-30 minutes; however, on Orcas Island the ferry schedule dictates how long it will take to go anywhere on the mainland. Many times the ferries are late so your trip will take longer than you anticipated.
I checked the ferry schedule after I spoke to the doctor at about 2:30. The next ferry to Anacortes would leave at 4.
Because no one is guaranteed a space on a ferry without a reservation (which I didn’t have), I had to get to the ferry dock ASAP to have a chance of getting on it.
If I missed it, the next ferry didn’t leave until after 8, and I wouldn’t have arrived at the hospital until 10. So not only would my poor sick dog have to sit in my car for 6 hours (or longer if the ferry was late), I would also miss the last ferry back to Orcas and have to stay in Anacortes overnight.
Bottom line: I HAD to get on that 4:00 ferry.
A Frantic Drive to the Ferry
Trying hard to quell my panic, I asked the vet to have Haley ready to go when I arrived. I then jumped in the car with my other dog Miguel and drove to pick her up.
The vet tech had Haley ready to go when I arrived. She hooked Haley up to an IV because she was dehydrated and needed lots of fluids.
The vet tech quickly got Haley in the car and set up her IV. She told me I could pay the bill some other time so I wouldn’t waste any time.
With one sick dog and one old dog in tow, I left the vet and headed to the ferry.
I’m not a religious person, but during the 20 minute ride to the ferry dock I prayed over and over: “Please let us get on the ferry, please let us get on the ferry, please let us get on the ferry……”.
We arrived about 30 minutes before the ferry was scheduled to leave. The line of cars didn’t look particularly long, so I thought we’d get on; however, when I asked the woman at the ferry booth if we could get on, she said it was full.
As I stiffled the urge to scream, “MY DOG WILL DIE IF YOU DON’T LET US ON THAT FERRY!”, I told her as calmly as possible that my dog was having a health crisis and I had to get her to the emergency vet.
I don’t know if my tear-streaked face or my pathetic looking dog hooked up to an IV changed her mind, but she told me to get in line and they’d find a way to get me on.
If we hadn’t been in the middle of COVID I would have leaped out of the car and given her a big hug. Instead, I thanked her effusively and pulled into line.
After the hour-long ferry ride to Anacortes I made the 20 minute drive to the emergency vet in 10 minutes.
Full Parking Lot at the Emergency Vet
My heart sank as I pulled into the parking lot at the Pet Emergency Center and saw two dozen cars of people either waiting to drop off or pick up their dogs.
If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to take your dog to an emergency vet, you know admitting and discharging dogs can be an extremely slow process. The staff take awhile to get triage information from upset dog owners dropping off their pets or give extensive discharge instructions to people picking them up.
After getting Haley on the wait list, I hesitated to ask for updates about when they could admit her because I knew the staff had difficult jobs dealing with people concerned about their pets. And maintaining COVID protocols made their jobs even tougher.
When I arrived I had about 2-1/2 hours before I had to leave to catch the last ferry back to Orcas. After 90 minutes they only admitted 3 or 4 dogs.
My anxiety level skyrocketed because I wasn’t prepared to stay overnight with Miguel in Anacortes because when I rushed out the door I forgot his food and pain meds.
But as the time I had to leave for the ferry loomed, I called to see when they would admit her. They assured me they would admit her in time for me to catch the ferry.
Sure enough, with about 15 minutes to spare, they came out, took down Haley’s medical info, and took her inside. Due to COVID I could not to go in with her, which was excruciatingly difficult.
Watching her slowly, dutifully walk inside with her head and tail down just crushed me.
I couldn’t dwell on that too long though, because Miguel and I had a ferry to catch. I reluctantly drove away while trying prevent my mind from inventing a variety of incurable ailments Haley could have and wondering if I would see her alive again again.
We arrived in Anacortes in time to catch the ferry and collapsed into bed about midnight.
Veterinarians Find Cause of Intestinal Blockage
An MRI didn’t provide conclusive evidence of blockage in her intestines, but an ultrasound showed an obstruction so they took her into surgery to remove it.
The culprit? A piece of of a rubber ChuckIt! ball.
I’d seen her tearing apart these balls before but I didn’t see her have a piece of one.
The surgery went well but her recovery took a bit longer than they anticipated because she developed pancreatitis and wouldn’t eat anything for a couple of days.
She ended up staying in the hospital for a week. A long, excruciating, anxiety-filled week.
Haley’s absence was also tough on Miguel. He just stopped eating.
I tried tempting him by adding chicken and salmon (his favorite) to his food. Nothing worked. He didn’t even eat treats.
Eventually I had to give him an appetite stimulant from the vet before he started eating again.
Haley Has Recovered and We’re Staying on Orcas Island
Haley has fully recovered and is back to her normal food-hunting, ball-chasing life.
Whenever I drive past the Pet Emergency Center in Mt. Vernon now, I no longer wonder how difficult it would be to get my dogs there during a medical emergency. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most difficult, I’d say it’s about a 9.
But I have no regrets moving my dogs to an island because they love it here.
They can walk unleashed on walks on the remote roads around our house. They sniff tons the new smells. There are thousands of acres of forested land to explore. Haley discovered she loves to eat deer poop (I’m not thrilled about that one).
I also spend more time with them at home, and I’m less stressed here than in Seattle. If I’m less stressed, so are they.
Also, as in many small communities, people step up to help neighbors who need it.
From the vet tech who set up Haley’s IV in my car and told me I could pay her bill another day, to the ferry worker who squeezed me in on the boat, to the staff at the Pet Emergency Center who expedited Haley’s intake so I could catch the ferry back home, to the staff at Orcas Veterinary Service who called to see how she was doing at the emergency vet, I had a support system of people to help me get Haley the care she needed as quickly as possible.
So while living on an island does present some extra challenges for me and my dogs, we’re ecstatic about living here, and we aren’t leaving!