Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How to end a life

I’ve been a veterinarian for 16 years and I’m quite an effective killing machine. I have a 100% success rate which is far better than Dr. Kevorkian and probably better than most assassins. My method of choice is lethal injection. It’s quick and apparently painless although none of my victims are capable of telling me otherwise.

I remember the first time I saw an animal being put to sleep. It was a big old black lab that had some sort of terminal disease. He laid on the floor, not moving except for the occasional heavy breath. The technician asked me if I was going to be okay and I said “yes” even though I wasn’t sure how I was going to react. The doctor gave the injection and within seconds the whole body became very still. The eyes glazed over and I didn’t need a stethoscope to know that the heart had completely stopped. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t even sad. I was frozen. Numb. Life had passed into death and instead of the walls crumbling and sirens blaring, there wasn’t even as much as a whimper. Wasn’t the ending of a life supposed to be more than that?

Since that time, I have euthanized more animals than I care to remember. Mostly dogs and cats but also a long line of pocket pets and birds. The number one reason I do it is because the animal is suffering; cancer, organ failure, severe joint disease, severe trauma and in some cases “old age” which is a term to describe declining quality of life at home. With many of the pets, it is clear that euthanasia is the best thing to do. I try to comfort the owners telling them that their pet isn’t going to get better. I tell them that if he or she were my pet, I would be doing the same thing. I tell them that, thankfully, we can end the pain in a calm, dignified and humane manner. It’s very important to not let the owners feel any quilt. Not let them feel like they are playing God. I tell them that I am very sorry. I’ve been through it myself with my pets and I understand what they are going through. Saying goodbye to a pet is a heartbreaking painful process and if you have ever experienced it, you know exactly what I am talking about.

After the decision has been made to say goodbye, I tell the owners about the process. If they want to be present, I insist on putting in a catheter (which is a direct access to the vein) because it helps everything go smoothly. The last thing the owners want to see is their dying pet getting poked multiple times because the vet can’t find a vein. I also sedate the pet and let the owners visit for as long as they want. Then I anesthetize the pet and inject the fatal solution. I admit it. I hate doing this. It’s usually very emotional and I’ve had some people literally collapse in hysterics or run through the hallways crying “Oh my God, oh my God!” The grief can be profoundly deep and even though we have offered to drive some people home, no one has taken us up on the offer.

I don’t get used to it. I doubt if I ever will but I don’t always feel sad either because I am not acquainted with the pet or the owners have waited too long and the pet is clearly suffering. There have been many times that I have gotten upset; I’ve known the owners and their pet for a long time and I share in their sorrow. I’ve never wept in front of an owner but I have gotten glassy eyed (that’s as much as my male hormones allow) and I only hug clients if they hug me first or if they look like they really need it. After I check to make sure that the heart has stopped, I ask the owners if they would like more time with the deceased. Sometimes they take over an hour. Sometimes they can’t wait to get out of there. Everyone is different.

And inevitably, my next appointment is a new client with a happy new puppy. It takes considerable emotional gymnastics to go so quickly from an old death to a new life. It’s like being a mortician one moment and being asked to teach a Kindergarten class the next. It’s no wonder I come home some days and want to stare at walls. And drink. No, I don’t drink but some days I think I should.

I deal with this stuff almost every day so why am I writing about this now? My dear Dusty, my seventeen and a half year old Pekingese who has been with me for only half his life, is coming close to his end. He’s had multiple problems for a while now; his kidneys are failing, he’s blind, he circles and his little frail body is wasting away. There are a few reasons why I’m holding on. He loves to cuddle. He’s still eating. And well, to be completely honest, I just don’t want to say goodbye. I love it when I hold him. And he looks up at me with his one eye. And he snorts and he coos and does all those little things that pets do that endear you to them. If I were his veterinarian, I would be telling me that it’s alright. He had a great long life. You don’t want him to suffer, do you?

It’s never easy, even for a veterinarian who counsels people about death almost every working day. I think a lot of people take comfort in the fact that I am the one telling them it’s okay to say goodbye. It makes them feel as if the decision is out of their hands. But for me, for my pet, there isn’t anyone else who can make that decision for me. I am the decision maker and the executioner. I have had to do it three other times with three dogs; Chin, my Chow Chow, given to me as a present for getting into vet school and Prince and Snowball who were Dusty’s “brothers”. I prefer to be by myself when I do this. Mourning for me needs to be private. An inward, closed affair. Then it’s time to heal and let the memories linger.

I know it’s time. He’s been so tough. Far tougher than I am. I have to let him go. For his sake. I know he’s not going to curl up in a ball and drift away, making it easy. I tell people that it rarely happens this way. I think the pets want to hold on too. There will always be a part of him that stays behind. Is that comforting? I say that to ease the mind of my clients but somehow my magic doesn’t work on me. The magician can’t be fooled by his own tricks.

I miss him already and nothing can soothe this pain.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil,
Sorry to hear about Dusty. I just want to let you know that you were the very best at that sad task. Of the 6 that went after you left, all with different vets, only one came close to being as good as you were.
Thank You From the Heart,Love Claudia