Death, too, is part of life cycle


[I] live, breathe and eat being a veterinarian. I see a pet on a leash, and I check its gait. I see a grey whiskered dog and think of senior issues. I overhear a conversation about a pet’s illness, and I want to add my two cents.

Work is hard. Work is fun, and every day brings challenges. However, I had no idea when I signed up for this job, the sheer number of euthanasias and sadness I would face.

All pets die, and we know this when we adopt them into our lives. We are angels of death to so many, and this is a very, very important part of our lives.

The veterinary profession is unique when it comes to being comfortable with death. Like many aspiring veterinarians, I thought euthanasia would be the hardest part of my job, but it isn’t – not by a long shot.

MDs don’t get it. In the human world, euthanasia is a grave sin even when someone is suffering from a terminal illness.

“Futile care” occurs when a physician cracks the chest of an elderly patient in multi-organ failure who has just arrested, or the oncologist details a complicated journey for a deadly metastatic cancer.

The older you get, the more likely you are to die in a hospital. According to the Centers of Disease Control, 73 percent of people over the age of 65 die as inpatients.

It sounds like a horrible way to go. I hope that statistic changes as more states enact the Death with Dignity Act, and I add more years.

Almost every day I counsel clients as to “When is the right time to let go?” I have changed my criteria for euthanasia over the years and now answer that question with “Consider 6 things that your pet loves to do. If they are no longer able to do at least half of them, then it is time to let go.” This helps, but it is still far from simple.

Every situation and every family is different. I think relief from suffering is a moral obligation, and that it is better to end life too soon than too late. Euthanasia is truly a gift of love.

Never was this more apparent than last week. You might recognize this family because I’ve already written about Buddy.

I shared Buddy, a magnificent Golden Retriever, with Dr. Sybil Davis (a certified rehabilitation specialist).

When I first referred him to her 4 years ago, he could barely walk from a myriad of problems. In 6 months, he was walking and feeling great again.

His family simply refused to give up on him. He’s been a “frequent flyer” patient for both of us over the years.

This visit was different, and when I stepped into the examination room, I knew he was in trouble. He could barely stand and his breathing was labored.

Although Buddy lived in a family of three, he was really the son’s dog. They grew up together, and Alec brought Buddy in for visits. I always thought of Norman Rockwell’s paintings of boys and children whenever I saw them!

After diagnostics and quiet conversation, it was clearly time to let go, but we would not be rushed in making this decision. End of life should be kind – to the owner, as well as the animal.

I tried to walk the emotional landscape that accompanies the decision to euthanize. Do we refer, try hospice care, sleep on this decision for a day or two and reconsider? Could we give Buddy more days of good living? And, if we euthanize, what do we do afterward?

The whole family was present with Buddy, and the parents deferred the decision to Alec. He knew. I could see it in his eyes, but it was too hard to verbalize.

In his heart, he knew that Buddy had finally worn out. What a wonderful young man to put his dog first, and I know his parents were proud of him.

Buddy didn’t know what was happening. All he knew was a sense of tranquility from sedation, a quiet comfortable room and his family surrounding him. He died with grace and dignity, quickly with no pain. It was a gift from his best friend.

I am sometimes overwhelmed by these last moments, but I am also thankful that I can be a part of them. Without great love, there cannot be grief.

Thank you, Alec, for making the right decision, and thank you, Buddy, for the memories.

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