Whatever your profession, you’ll have work days that will stay with you forever. Yesterday was one such adventure...in misery.

I was feeling flu-ish and crappy (a rare occurrence for me) and had decided to take the afternoon off (an even rarer occurrence). Since I don’t like to take cold meds I was sniffling into Kleenex, coughing into my elbow and handwashing obsessively when my first patient arrived:

A sixteen year-old girl I’d been following closely for the last few months for her arthritis pain, bloodwork abnormalities, disorientation and as-yet undiagnosed occasional respiratory distress.

But this visit was more routine: She’d run into a rose bush and had a a thorny puncture wound that had refused to heal with simple home care (plant-originating wounds can be like that).

As usual, I performed my basic physical and probed the owner on her other issues before clipping and cleaning the wound. Pretty stable, it seemed...

....until I applied a cold compress to the area, at which point she let out an uncharacteristic howl, stiffened, defecated and appeared to suffer a seizure. Then, in spite of a strong pulse, she suddenly stopped breathing. I didn’t even stop to explain my intentions to her owner...here's when I picked her up and ran.

Blood poured out her nose as we rushed her to surgery to place a catheter, intubate her and provide artificial respiration. EKG and pulse oximetry revealed the full extent of her agonal condition. CPR, epinephrine down the tube...then in her heart. Nothing.

Here’s when you might reasonably say...She’s sixteen. She’s had a great life. It was her time.

Yeah, but tell that to her tearful client too shocked and confused to utter a word, much less internalize the bizarre nature of this sudden, stress-related death. Nothing I said seemed to sink in. He was a walking zombie by the time I helped him put her into his car (for a family viewing prior to cremation). The lack of any fee for our efforts was completely lost on him, I'm sure. (Not that I expected any special gratitude for this gesture.)

So it was that my guilt had no sticking point. Useless human emotion though it might be, it dogged me––along with the cough, drip and rasping voice––all day long, then disturbing my sleep and chasing me into today.

Who brings a pet to the veterinarian and expects a sudden death?––especially one that resembles anything but the peaceful final moments we crave on behalf of our loved ones.


Less stressful reading over on PetMD's DailyVet post on poop and what it can tell you.

More contentious stuff (waiting for the legal department to call) on USAToday's column.