I struggled with writing about this situation. I struggled with posting a blog about it. Please try to understand.
A few weeks ago a very good client of mine passed away unexpectedly. She had a little toy breed dog who had been battling some significant but non life-threatening medical issues for the past few years. We had developed a fairly good client-veterinarian relationship and the little dog had gone from being terrified by my presence to being quite happy to see me. I always did have a pocket full of cookies for him after all. Quickest way to a dog’s heart.
I was notified on Wednesday of the woman’s passing and the daughter set up a visit for the coming Friday to have the little guy put down. Apparently, no one in the family could take the dog and with his medical conditions the owner had left instructions to have him euthanized rather than have him surrendered to a shelter or rescue group.
I expressed some concern about the visit when it was scheduled and my employer and I discussed the dog’s history. He was 13 years old, had multiple health issues and could be aggressive when he was not feeling his best. We foolishly decided that I would have a conversation with the owner’s daughter when she brought him in for his visit.
The morning of the visit came. Not that these details are important but they play into the narrative so bear with me. My family was planning a trip to visit my wife’s family in New York. When we do that, I typically drop everyone off in the morning and then pick the kids up from daycare and then get my wife from work so we don’t have to leave a vehicle at her office over the weekend. As would be expected when you are getting five people together for a weekend away from home, I was running late that morning. Veterinary medicine is one of those professions where if things start getting a little out of hand, it snowballs quickly and getting caught up can be a challenge.
I arrived at work to a fairly busy appointment schedule. I am pretty decent at compartmentalizing my work, so there was no thinking about the four hour drive I had ahead of me until 4:30 that afternoon, but also when I’m in an exam room with a client, that’s all I think about. I didn’t plan ahead as much as I would have liked for the euthanasia visit coming in at 10:00 am.
The time came and a very distraught woman brought in a happy but slightly disoriented little dog. The woman was sobbing, able to get a few words out about her mother’s wishes and was in no place to discuss other options. We fell back on our training and guided the woman through the euthanasia process. We put the little dog to sleep and prepared his remains for cremation and because we were running behind schedule we went right into our next appointment. For some reason I feel like it’s necessary to inform you that this whole process took nearly thirty minutes and as we were preparing out back we weren’t happy about it but at the time I did not see a reasonable alternative.
I went for a walk that lunch break to process my thoughts, something was weighing on my mind. My wife called and she was in the middle of a pretty difficult situation and having one of the worst days a veterinarian can have. Little did either of us know she was about to have the worst day she has yet experienced as a veterinarian and in my opinion the worst kind of day a veterinarian can have. Not that that particular detail is important but it plays into the narrative.
I got back from the walk just in time for the first appointment of the afternoon. With appointments and callbacks I didn’t have a chance to even think about anything else until I got in my car that afternoon. When I got in the car I was on a schedule. I had to get home, pack the car for the weekend, I had a list of chores that needed doing before we left. The dogs had to be fed and they needed to do their business before we took off for a four hour drive. I packed the car and picked up the girls. We (they) talked about their day from the daycare to the practice my wife works at. Once at my wife’s practice we started discussing her day and it was such a horrible day the conversation took up a good section of the drive. It wasn’t until we were on the thruway, there is this place on the right hand side when you’re heading south that has log cabin homes on display it was there that my own thoughts started creeping into my consciousness. Like fog settling on a highway at night, they did not bring with them anything good. By then my wife was trying to get a nap in and I was left alone with the radio. I started playing back the day in my head and was overwhelmed with grief as I thought about the small dog I had euthanized that morning.
I still think about him a little bit almost every day. These are the thoughts that run through my head: I wonder if I had brought him home how long he would have really had left. I could have brought him everywhere with me and I’m sure eventually my wife would have come around. I’m just manly enough so that carrying a small white dog everywhere would have looked cool or ironic. How many times in my career is something like this particular situation really going to happen to me? This could have been a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a dog’s life a little better and I missed it. Not only did I miss it but I was the instrument that ended his life. I wish I’d had more time or had reached out to the owner’s daughter a little earlier. Maybe she would have been adamant that we follow her mother’s instruction but maybe we could have come up with a solution together. I’ll never know.
Self pity aside, this is not a situation that is all that unusual in veterinary medicine. We are often faced with the request of euthanizing a pet for reasons many people might disagree with. The idea of euthanizing a pet to meet the request of an owner after they have themselves died is also not that unusual. It happens. At one point in my career we had a patient whose owner had left him a trust fund and the remaining inheritance wasn’t to be released until the pet passed. You can imagine how the lawyer felt about those veterinary bills. But ultimately, decisions like this are always going to be a part of this profession. Some of them will be a struggle and some of them won’t. This one was and still is. I don’t think that the owner’s family did anything wrong by him, I just wish it had played out differently. Hoping there’s not a next time.
Thanks for reading.