Invoking God's will in veterinary medicine (on religion and tolerance in practice)
It’s true that I’ve never considered myself a deeply religious person. Yet I also fancy myself unusually tolerant of others’ beliefs. This past week’s case of a dying puppy, however, put this latter claim to the test. Here’s the story:
A litter of three foundling puppies arrived at the hospital six months ago. Two robust boys with one scrawny girl rounding out the bunch. Sickly though they all were in an upper-respiratory kind of way, the boys recovered nicely from their rough start. The little girl, however, required continuous respiratory treatments for over a month to make it past her severely depleted state.
They all went on to live in and around a clean, two-horse stable surrounded by a family of healthy cats. The owner declined vaccination based on their rough start (and, truth be told, because she has a penchant for homeopathic approaches anyway).
Last week all three fell ill again—this time with a nasty case of unrelenting diarrhea. The boys appeared to power through nicely with treatment. The girl faded and fell ill enough to hospitalize. Her bloodwork showed that her white blood cell count was negligible—estimated at less than 300 cells in her circulation (normal is more like five to fifteen thousand).
This seven month-old puppy’s diarrhea wasn’t even the worst of it. She began showing neurologic signs—a little head tremor, in her case.
By now, some of you might have guessed that she was suffering some overwhelming viral infection—distemper, anyone?
Spiraling out of control by the hour, the little girl finally devolved into a pathetic lump of a pup with a condition I couldn’t manage at all. Yet her owner was hell-bent on saving her in my makeshift ICU isolation unit (where there was no way I could care for her properly overnight) instead of at the specialist’s 24-hour facility.
This was when I finally begged her to let me euthanize her—to no avail. No, instead I was told that, “God would take care of her.”
But is it His will to let her suffer, I wonder?
Proof, yet again, that my boyfriend and I are cosmically linked in an animal sort of way, arrived in the guise of his own patient from the same day. His case, however, dealt with a surgically manageable malady—a generally 100% curable one. Yet the owners refused to operate based on their belief that, “God is the one who cures.”
OK, so WHY are you here, again?
Because we live in Miami (not exactly a hotbed of fundamental religiosity), vets here don’t often find themselves in this situation. We’re not frequently in a position to wonder how best to manage these extremely trying ethical dilemmas, though I’m sure vets elsewhere deal with this on a more regular basis.
Ultimately, my boyfriend’s not-to-treat scenario resolved itself when the clients had a change of heart and opted to save their dog’s life through surgery. This patient is now doing very well and is expected to make a complete recovery. Unfortunately, God took care of my case, too. She died overnight.
Try as I might to square this with my tolerant worldview, I truly can’t. Accepting a belief in the power of God to give and to take away in ways that allow for extremes of needless suffering is just not on my moral radar screen. Doing so would invalidate everything I’ve come to believe when it comes to why I practice veterinary medicine.
Of course, I feel tremendous guilt over this puppy’s terrible death. Should I have been more forceful with the owner? Not that she was conscious when I last looked in on her, but should I have sent her home so at least she wouldn’t have expired alone in a cold hospital?
These are the cases that keep me up at night. It’s times like these when I have great faith in my boyfriend’s credo: You do your best and then you go home and have a beer.
I’ve got to say, that’s the most tolerant religion I ever heard of. Sign me up for the Fellowship.