“You have surgeon’s hands,” said Mr. Veri, and I believed him. It was one of the few things my Jon Lovitz-esque physics teacher had said to me all year, and I had no idea what prompted it or what level of experience he had with hand divination, but it sounded like a kickass thing to have, and I held onto it.
He saw my hands, but he didn’t know my heart. I didn’t either, so I can’t blame him for setting me up for crushed dreams down the road.
I went into veterinary school sure of two things:
1. It was going to be really hard to get used to the idea of euthanizing a pet;
2. I had surgeon’s hands, therefore I was probably going to be a surgeon. Wrong and wrong.
It didn’t take long for me to become painfully aware of the fact that I actually don’t care for surgery, at all. It’s not like an intricate cake or sculpture or any of the other fine motor hobbies I enjoy, because cakes and clay don’t die when you cut them wrong. It took Michelangelo three years to finish David; I get half an hour to open an animal up, neatly find whatever it is I’m after, avoid cutting anything large and pulsing, and put the animal back together. I can do it, but I don’t like it. It’s stressful. My hands work fine but my head is not having any of it.
I have the hands of a writer, one who likes words and talking and getting a feel for what a client is going through. Ever moving and gesturing. And my heart, well, that one’s even harder to explain.
The first pet I euthanized was exactly two days into my career. A delivery truck had accidentally backed over a small feral kitten, and the driver rushed it in to me, his tears confirming he was horrified at the accident. The tiny kitten’s pelvis was broken, and it was horrible.
My techs asked me what to do, should we take x rays or start fluids or what? We gave him an injection of pain medication while I called for the other veterinarian on the premises, a man to whom I will always be grateful, for advice. He simply looked at me and said sadly what I needed to hear: he is suffering in a way we cannot alleviate. This you must do. (Seriously, he said it just like that. He was very Mandy Patinkin-like.)
I euthanized my first pet that day, and as awful as it was, I was also so glad that I could give him a peaceful end rather than a drawn out, tortuous one. It was a sadness, but also a relief.
It’s a strange dichotomy, being a doctor who routinely ends a pet’s life. It’s a huge responsibility, and now, a decade later, I still approach it with the same gravity I have since day one. But as monumental as the charge is, it’s not hard. Because I only do it when I know in my heart that this is the right thing to do.
More than that, I see a part of the job we sometimes fail to really do well: we know it’s the right thing because we’ve agreed to it; the owner, on the other hand, needs to hear it from someone else. They need a Dr. Luis (in my case) or someone, anyone, who is not agonizing over the lifetime of memories they are flooded with to say to them objectively, this is ok.
I asked no fewer than four veterinarians about Kekoa before I made the call. When it comes to my own pets, I am just as much a client as anyone.
And it’s hard, it’s SO hard, but I think the fact that I accept that and know that this last memory with a pet should be as minimally stressful as possible has made me drawn to that moment. Not because I enjoy it, but because there is something rewarding down to the core of who I am as a veterinarian to know that I did all I could to make an owner feel validated in their decision and to give them a memory that is hopefully comforting despite the obvious pain of it all.
My friend Dr. P came to my home and helped me with Kekoa on that awful Sunday, and she was amazing. And when her schedule changed and she could no longer work with this housecall practice, my friend (and owner of the practice) Dr. B asked if I might be interested in helping out. I went with her on a call the other day to see how I felt, and as we all hugged after a very sweet and loving goodbye, I knew: I am OK with this.
I accepted, and I’ll be taking calls starting in July.
I hate how people use the name ‘Kevorkian’ in such a perjorative, ghoulish fashion, because it is in fact one of the most important things a veterinarian does, the ending of suffering.
Instead, I offer this: I propose to call it Birdsonging*, as in, this little guy is old and can’t control his bowels and isn’t eating and I think it’s time for a birdsong. That sounds a lot better than when clients call and tell me it’s time to Kevorkian the cat, which I get is an attempt at gallows humor but still. (PS ‘Going to Kevin’, for those of you who have read the blog for a long time, is also an acceptable substitute.)
Kekoa left this world with her mouth full of ice cream and her ears full of classical music and my voice murmuring in her ears. It is, as strange as it is to say, a very comforting memory for me. And I am proud to help bring that comfort to others.
*Vogelsang is German for Birdsong, something people point out to me at least once a week.