Euthanasia-moment tears in veterinary practice
Today, I made an interesting observation. I don’t cry that much any more at work. That may sound strange to you, but young vets cry…a lot (if my experience is any indication of the norm).
Sure, I still get misty-eyed at euthanasias (especially when clients do), but I don’t have that red-faced, nose-blowing kind of cry I used to when I was newer to the game.
My young tech couldn’t help but lose it when the obligatory, Saturday euthanasia came through the door this morning (yesterday to you). The male owner, a middle-aged guy with the family dog in tow, had spent a week trying to nurse his geriatric, downed Dalmatian back to orthopedic wellness, in spite of her pain and discomfiting disorientation.
It was a sorry sight. We had to pick her up and lift her emaciated frame from the waiting room onto the table in the exam room. She whimpered and complained as we did so.
As is my practice, I first offered my basic assessment of her condition, described her probable level of discomfort and discussed our potential remedies—in spite of the obvious.
Of course, it was clear that this dog was on her last legs. She’d had enough of the pain that would dog her for weeks (if not months) if her owners so chose. But I had to offer my best medicine. After all, that’s what this owner came for…wasn’t it?
As a vet, you’ve got not only to determine the animal’s needs and serve up the best strategy for treatment, you also have to know how to read the owner. My tactics include the word “euthanasia” and “letting her go.”
An owner’s reaction to my phrasing often tells me how to proceed. Does this owner need support in the decision he’s already taken or does he want, against all odds, to prolong his pet’s life?
It’s sort of like playing God—and I detest this role, as any feeling person would. But it’s nonetheless essential to how we deal with a pet’s last moments.
Unfortunately, this man was clear on his intentions…but torn on his feelings. He could barely stand to look at his suffering, beloved wreck of a dog. He so wanted to spend one more weekend with her—but he couldn’t bear to see her suffer any more. He was on the verge of tears and so clearly struggling for control that I thought he’d never bring himself to make the decision. Eventually, he managed to kiss her one last time. I promised to treat her gently and sweetly—and he said he knew we’d have it no other way.
As soon as he left the room (as men more often do before the final injections), my tech’s composure broke down. She’d been barely able to handle the conversation—and it reminded me of my early efforts to control the sobs that accompanied the administration of the anesthetic and euthanasia solutions.
My tech’s reaction was a sharp contrast to my own seemingly rational attitude—in spite of the emotional exchange that takes place under these circumstances. It’s obvious to me (and perhaps to my clients) that I’ve adapted to the emotionally taxing experience of euthanizing a pet. Somehow, the conscious me has turned it into an almost joyful occasion. After all, I’m offering a complete resolution of someone’s pain and suffering—and that’s one of the most concretely positive things I can do in this world.
That may sound weird (and it’s occasioned some guilt on my part in the past) but it’s what’s helped me survive the “compassion fatigue” that might very well have ruined my career. If I were unable to endure each and every euthanasia without crying (at least three or four every week) I’d likely go mad with sorrow.
So, as it stands, I cry less. And when tears do come to my eyes, it’s because I know that what I’m doing is the correct thing…a thing most people can’t do and one which brings relief. Call it cognitive dissonance, rationalization or wishful thinking, but I call it comfort…to the grief-stricken and the afflicted, alike.