Guest post by Elizabeth Colleran, DVM
The software we use in my practices will color code appointments by “reason for visit.” The one for euthanasia is, as one would expect, a very dark color. A few weeks ago, I came to work. As usual, I looked at the schedule before rounds to see any issues that needed to be covered before we convened. My heart sank. The first two appointments of the day were euthanasias.
While in many respects, I think of euthanasia as a privilege to perform when suffering is the alternative, nevertheless, it is always hard on me. Not as hard as it is for clients who don’t want to give up, but emotionally trying. I watched my Dad suffer to death for 3 months in an ICU so I know how important it is to assist in ending suffering.
“We veterinarians think of ourselves as healers.”
We veterinarians think of ourselves as healers, capable of diagnosing, curing or managing illness and injury. When we can no longer do so, our role in the pet’s and family’s life changes. We are not allies in the fight any longer. We must advise the course to prevent suffering; sometimes that means death.
In that same week, my brother called from 3000 miles away to talk to me about his 11 year old Clumber Spaniel, Hattie, who was in the hospital. He needed me to help him make decisions. She was very sick and it was Friday afternoon. One plan was to stabilize her through the weekend and perform surgery on Monday, a course that may or may not have improved her condition. I reviewed the diagnostics with her doctor. We had a long conversation about likely outcomes. Her odds of getting better were poor but not impossible.
I told my brother that he should take it one day at a time. Give the doctors permission to provide all the supportive care she needed, including a blood transfusion and see how she was the next day. On Saturday, her condition was no better, maybe even a bit worse. My brother was so sad. He loved her and wanted her home and healthy. My job as sister and veterinarian was to tell him to stop, to let her go because it was clear if he did not that her decline would be terrible for her.
He did as I advised and knew that he had made the right choice. It still makes my cry as I write this to have to break his heart.
“The choice to break our own hearts to save another
from suffering is true compassion.”
The choice to break our own hearts to save another from suffering is true compassion. Everyone wishes to have the decisions disappear by circumstance. To have a beloved pet die a “natural” death, without suffering, is often not possible.
Every euthanasia is a little piece of heartbreak. We hug our clients if they need it. Help them make choices. Tell them how much we honor them. Try to make it as quiet and peaceful as we can. We include whomever they wish and try to provide comfort and closure. There is no harder task in my profession, nor one so important.
Dr. Elizabeth Colleran is a 1990 graduate of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. She holds a Masters of Science in Animals and Public Policy, also from Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine. In 2011, she was the President of the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). She is a Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Specialty in Feline Practice. As the spokesperson for the AAFP initiative Cat Friendly Practice, she speaks at major conferences around the country. Dr. Colleran owns the Chico Hospital for Cats in Chico, CA and the Cat Hospital of Portland in Portland, OR.