It’s a Privilege – by Dr. Enid Stiles
I consider my time on this earth as a veterinarian a privilege.
And the reason why is simple, and yet for some people, it may seem odd.
I hear myself and my colleagues using words with clients like ‘it is our duty’, ‘we are always considering the welfare of the patient’, ‘we have an obligation to ensure the best treatment possible’, and so on. And these words are so very true and make our profession so very difficult at times.
But as I drove home the other evening, on my day off, from a friend’s 14 year old dog’s home euthanasia, I kept thinking how fortunate I WAS. What a privilege this can be, to be there for your clients, your friends, your family at those difficult moments. I thank those people for giving me the opportunity to join them in such a personal and difficult time. I thank them for feeling they can cry or scream, or be unable to stay because the pain is simply too much. I thank them for understanding that this is a gift we are giving their family member. It is selfless.
With my career, I am always running; a check list here, a call there, 3 animals in rooms needing to be seen, a dog on the surgery table waiting to be spayed…. but in these moments, when the client is waiting to make one of the most difficult decisions they have or will ever have to make, I HAVE to STOP. I am forced to be in the moment, to be there, to be present, and to not ‘just do my duty’.
Many of you have seen me cry. Some days are worse than others. I am not crying because we are euthanizing your 4 legged friend, as I know this is the best thing for him or her. We owe them a death with dignity. No, I am crying because of the beauty that is your relationship. That bond that people have with their pets. How deeply rooted it is. How that relationship may signify so many things I will never be privy to…. Perhaps your dog was there during a difficult split-up, or stayed by your side when you lost your mother. Maybe your cat was your only companion when you moved out of a family home for the first time. Perhaps you are crying more now than when your grandfather died, and you do not understand why, but believe me, you are not alone. Perhaps this is your last cat, as you will be going into a care facility that will not allow pets. Perhaps this was your daughter’s dog and she has left for college. Perhaps she was your partner in agility….Perhaps…..
Sometimes I know the stories because they are told during regular visits. Sometimes people want to talk about these relationships in those final moments. Sometimes we laugh as we embrace all of the funny and silly things our pets have done. In some euthanasias, I know and hear nothing, but the relationship is clear; the way they hold their cat or touch his paw, the words they use to say goodbye, the way the dog looked at them and would not stop looking….
When I was in veterinary school in my anesthesia rotation, we had a patient that was under anesthesia for radiographs. He was a race horse and we knew that if the condition could not be treated so he could live a pain-free life , then the owner was going to elect euthanasia. This was difficult for us as students. We needed to put everything aside personally. He would have never been without pain and it was decided he should not wake up from his anesthesia. My anesthesia teacher was a gentle man of Sikh faith. He looked at me as I was preparing the medication to give and before I started injecting he looked at me and he said: “Did you ask him?”. I stepped back and thought: Oh God, what was I doing? I thought the anesthetist had asked me to go ahead with the euthanasia… He replied “No, not me. Did you ask him (looking at the horse)”.
I am not a person of one particular religious belief. I am an agnostic. So I had to question why he wanted me to ask the horse permission to end his life. It was not as if he could answer my question. Was it God he wanted me to ask? Upon reflection and speaking with him a little more, I realized this was likely the most important message I will ever have in my career. It is to take that moment. Reflect on what you are about to do.
Remember this is a life that has importance on this earth and asking the question ensures you are thinking and considering this passage. The patient cannot answer me, but it is an action that keeps me grounded.
So for every euthanasia, in silence, I ask the dog or cat the question before I begin the euthanasia.
That is a privilege.