Somewhere over the rainbow bridge

rainbow_bridge

Veterinary life is not glamorous and rarely involves playing with cute puppies and kittens – no, it can be tough and emotionally draining at times.  I definitely enjoy the high that comes with helping a very sick or injured animal return to good health, the challenges of fixing the trauma and saving those close to dying.  But sometimes I need to end the suffering of a patient and while this is accepted as part of the job, it is not an easy part of the job.  There really is no euthanasia debate in the veterinary profession in Australia, but that does not always make it right.

Euthanasia is a very difficult decision for pet owners to make.  Saying goodbye to a pet who has provided a tonne of love, emotional support and friendship to their human companions is extremely tough.  Our job is to make this time a little less traumatic, try to make it as easy and comfortable for all concerned and provide a supportive and caring ear for those who wish to tell the last stories of their beloved companion.

Euthanasia impacts on all concerned including the vets and technicians involved, who do what they can to help ease the final moments.  In emergency practice, we don’t tend to have the close relationship with our patients that general practitioners may, but that is not to say we are less affected by performing the task of ending a life.  Emergencies are often animals that are more severely injured, suffering from more advanced illnesses or more acutely serious illnesses, or pets whose owners were trying to get through the weekend to see their vet but just can’t hold on any longer.  Emergencies are often more financially prohibitive to treat in some cases and in others, the end point is not clear and the outcome uncertain.  So tough decisions need to be made and in many cases, a range of unexpected emotions are felt by owners who are suddenly facing responsibility for their pet’s fate.

There are times when our heart goes out to the financially strapped owner who just cannot afford a lifesaving procedure for their pet.  While we try our best to work around finances and offer alternatives that may be acceptable and humane, it is not always possible.  A bloat, for example, needs to have surgery ASAP, and is several thousands of dollars of unexpected expenditure for the owner.  Having pet insurance can sometimes help in these circumstances, so of course we urge owners to consider insurance or at least a high interest savings account for their pet’s health.  Euthanasing a patient with a treatable condition is sometimes difficult for us to accept.  On the flip side, there are times when we feel humane euthanasia may be the kindest option for the patient.  Counselling owners to ensure the right decision is made for both the patient and owner is not something we take lightly.

There are days when the job can be frustrating and sad, and I think this is an important point for those who are keen to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.  I will never forget one Christmas morning I worked that was extremely busy.  Three of my first four consultations that morning were put to sleep and I was ready to give it all up there and then.  It is well known in our industry that many pet owners will try to get their beloved through Christmas before saying goodbye, but in some instances this is not possible.  However, this particular morning, all of the euthanasias I performed were for horrible, traumatic and very unexpected issues – a dog caught under a boat propeller, nearly drowned and badly wounded; a dog who had been found hanging by a hind leg in a fence during a storm for a couple of hours, suffering badly from the struggle; and the third was a dog missing for two days and found trapped in a drain with severe spinal trauma.  All of these cases could have potentially been treated but at great expense with guarded to poor outcomes, but the decision is not always based on finances.

Spare a thought for those of us who have spent time working in animal shelters where euthanasia policies have been in place.  As a new graduate I spent a soul destroying day euthanasing stray cats and kittens at a shelter.  There are some days we never forget.

It’s days like these that lead to compassion fatigue amongst vets, and may be why some vets appear to have a less caring attitude than others.  Compassion fatigue is a real condition, also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder, and is quite common among caregivers, nurses and veterinarians, amongst others.  A survey of medical physicians showed that 54% felt that at least one time in their career they’d had nothing left to give even after a restful weekend off duty.  For further information on compassion fatigue, I found a really interesting article at: http://www.aafp.org/fpm/2000/0400/p39.html.  Unfortunately, suicide rates amongst vets are amongst the highest of any profession and I am sure compassion fatigue contributes to these rates.  The veterinary profession tries to put support structures in place to help but those heading down those paths don’t always seek support.

Flickr/creative commons

The hope lies in remembering the reasons why we are performing this duty.  In the majority of cases, it is a kind and humane way to end the suffering of the poor creatures we see with advanced injuries and illnesses.  Sometimes, I do feel there is a relief for the owners and the pet, an end to the emotional distress and an end to the needles, procedures and nauseating medications.  And maybe they are out there and running over the rainbow bridge, chasing other pets, chasing their tails and finding their loved ones and peace on the other side.

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2 thoughts on “Somewhere over the rainbow bridge

  1. I thought you would be interested in hearing how I chose my new vet based on an euthanasia case she was dealing with.

    We had just moved to a small town. I asked someone for a referral to their vet. I wanted to meet this vet in advance of really needing one so I booked an appointment for a “meet & greet”/ear checkup. I had already met another vet in the area and wouldn’t even consider taking my dogs to her ever again. Paying for a couple of quick appointments to find the right vet was worth every penny to me.

    When I got out of the car at this second vet, I saw one of the vets come outside (who I quickly learned was the vet I had my appointment with). There was an elderly man clearly holding back tears, while walking a dog. The vet came out and I tried to hear what was being said because it seemed so odd. She asked the man if she could give the dog a shot to calm him because she didn’t want to euthanize him while he was so anxious. I later learned that this was a terrible case of a grandfather’s dog who had bitten his grandchild. A dog he clearly loved but the town said it had to be euthanized.

    I was incredibly moved by the compassion she showed both the man and the dog.

    I decided right there and then that if my dogs ever needed to be euthanized, this would be the vet who I would want to do it. I knew without a doubt I had found our new vet.

    Years passed, and it was my turn. We had talked about euthanizing Jake at home but his condition took a very quick turn for the worse and all the planning went out the window.

    But the office was amazing: We arrived and they were waiting outside with a stretcher. They had cleared the waiting room so we didn’t have to face people. They treated Jake with incredible compassion. When he was gone, they told us to let them know when they when we were ready to leave and they would clear the waiting room again. When I went to pay they told us to “just leave and not worry . . . when you pick up Jake’s ashes you can pay for everything then.”

    The next day we received a follow up phone call that lasted 1 hour. She went into great detail describing what our remaining dog Coupr would be feeling and how to help him through this loss. Again, the compassion she showed me and the concern she showed for my other dog, was very much appreciated as well as extremely helpful.

    I have had people write to me and tell me their vet was cold, heartless and tossed them out of the room immediately following the death of their pet because he needed the room. One woman described how her son was sobbing and the vet never so much as offered one single word of kindness to him.

    Bless you for being one of the caring and compassionate vets that our pets so very much deserve.

    • Hi Phyllise,
      Thank you for your kind comments and for sharing your story. I am glad you have found a vet who provides the compassion and care you expect from our profession. It is so important to feel your loved ones are in good hands.

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