“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.
For whatever reason, I sobbed reading this. What a beautiful thing, Dr. V. My sister said to me when I had to face this with my horse, we have a responsibility to help them lead happy lives and suffer as little as possible. She was right. My vet helped me with my decision and I am forever grateful. My dog vet was not as helpful in that decision even though he is a great vet. I worked with a lady who used to say there are worse things than death. And there are. What a blessing you will be in this special calling. And I really like the birdsong name. It is a peaceful thing to help a beloved pet out of misery and birdsong just fits.
Dr. V says
Thank you Jane. I am really glad your equine vet was so helpful- I think we forget how important it is for us to support our clients.
I should have waited to read this until I got home, now I’m sitting at work crying.. You are a wonderful writer and obviously a kind and good doctor. I wish we had veternarians in our area that offered home service, what a much more peaceful way to Birdsong.
Dr. V says
Thank you Steph. I think it’s becoming much more available in the US, and I hope it’s an option available everywhere in the future.
Christina Wilson says
What a lovely thought. Especially as I face that difficult decision with an oh so loving stray cat I’ve brought into my home. He is FIV positive, sneezes constantly, hasn’t integrated well with my dogs at all – in fact one of my dogs is afraid of him, and now he lives in the guest “suite” by himself for everyone’s safety. Yet he has become “my cat” and loves me beyond reason. My head tells me he isn’t really healthy and with the FIV and his age (10+) isn’t likely to improve – he doesn’t groom himself, he doesn’t play anymore, he doesn’t look out the windows, he stopped defecating in the litter box, etc. His bright spots in the day are when I visit him to spend time with him and when I feed him (he has always eaten like a pig, yet he doesn’t gain any weight – but his appetite is starting to fall off…) And when I read what I have just written, I realize he’s really not doing well at all, but my heart… my heart doesn’t want to let go… It just seems too soon!
Dr. V says
Oh, poor little guy. I’ll be thinking of you. Bless you for taking him in.
I’m so sorry to hear about Kekoa. Your blog post really moved me.
Dr. V says
Thank you Karla. I’ve just now gotten to the point I can think of her without getting all weepy 🙂 but that is how it is for all of us, I think.
Deborah Mendez says
Dr. V, I won’t say the new role will be “fun” — but it will surely be rewarding. My Vet was kind enough to come to the house (a service his practice does not usually offer) last year when it was time for one of our cats. It meant the world to me to not have to load him in the car and make that drive — which he hated. I know you’ll help many people and their pets.
Dr. V says
I have so much respect for my colleagues that go that extra mile. That’s huge. I’m glad he was able to be there for you.
We made the choice to let our 13yo Shep/mix go in November. It was time. It was a hard choice – but then, it wasn’t – I *knew* it was time. I recently found a pile of old photos of her (read: taken soon after she chose us to be her rescue family). They are currently gracing my fridge door. And I get teary when I really stop to look at them. For Christmas my mom gave me a frame with a more recent, very grey, photo of my sweet Chainy in it. The caption on the frame reads “Thanks for everything! I had a great time!” – sat there, bawling like a baby on Christmas morning. “Being there” for someone one as they transition from life to “the other side” is sacred – even if that someone has 4 legs and fur or feathers or whatever. Thank you for answering that call.
On a lighter note: I once had an teacher call me “Lady Jane” (my name isn’t even close to Jane) – I went to Catholic school and she was a nun…she rarely spoke to me directly and I never figure out why she chose to give me that nickname. However, that instance has stuck with me for 30 years…must have some meaning? Right?
Dr. V says
I love that caption from your mom. How bittersweet. And I bet the name will make sense to you at some random moment when you’re 85 or something and it’s too late to do anything with it. 🙂
Love this. You’re just amazing.
Dr. V says
no you’re amazing 🙂
Lisa W says
Oh my gosh, how lovely. Your clients (both human and animal) are blessed to have you as their vet. <3
And "birdsonging" does sound nicer than "going to Kevin" because these situations, when we know they're coming, tend to make me very angry at Kevin for taking my baby from me.
Dr. V says
Yes, poor Kevin has been taking a beating from a bunch of angry owners. With reason, mind you.
Dr. V., you make me proud to be able to call you a friend. You have a gift for empathy with the owner, as well as the pet, and that is not something that all vets have. Here in my part of the Hinterland we are lucky that home calls can be a feasible option for many vets. After well over 10 years with each of our pets that we have needed this service for, to be able to be home with our ‘family member’ is a huge blessing. To call it Birdsonging is genius. The beauty of the name, for me at least, conjures up the young years when our retrievers & bird dogs were best able to do what they were born to do, what they loved best, I wish you good luck in this new venture, you, too, were born for it. And if I lived closer, I’d personally deliver a case of Kleenex and a hug!!
Dr. V says
Aw, you are so sweet Cathey. I always feel so loved when you respond to my posts. 🙂 I also love your take on birdsonging, but as a retriever person of course that would sound great to me.
I’m going through the is it time or do we wait now with my 14 year old cat. He has cancer, and was doing well, but now he starting to loose weight. He does have more good days than bad. Still plays with our much younger cat. And the biggy he still will come and come up and lovings from us. I know my vet will help me through this. He did so 6 years ago when my favorite little girl had to go to the rainbow bridge due to health problems at the age of 4 years old. I know the Din has lived a good and long life, but it’s still so hard. My heart goes out to you and your family for the loss of Kekoa. I think we might do the food thing you did with Kekoa with Din. Again my goes out to you and your family
I like Birdsong and even Rainbow Bridge. We are going through the is it time or do we wait with our 14 year old cat with cancer. His good days far out number the bad days. He still plays with the 3 year little girl we got to help with the loss of a previous kitty. It took almost 3 years before I could get the another cat. I think it will be sooner for the new one since he was soooo loved and was the first pet my husband and I got as newlyweds.We decided to do the food thing you did with Kekoa with Din. He loves to try new stuff, loves potato chips, tuna, and tries to get everything we eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My heart goes out to you and your family on the of Kekoa.
Dr. V says
I’m so sorry to hear you are dealing with a kitty with cancer. I really do hate cancer. It sounds like Din is enjoying the heck out of his retirement, though, and I wish him many more good days ahead. And thank you for the kind words about Kekoa.
I just happened to read this at the right time. I can certainly empathize…..I am a veterinarian in Pennsylvania. Yesterday I euthanized my beloved cat, Cheshire. I did this at home with the door open to the deck so he could hear the birds singing and told him I loved him as I let him go with dignity. Diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 2008, he was doing wonderfully until recently. My head hurts today and I tear up as I write this. My heart goes out to you and Kekoa…for in the end the kindest thing we can do is let our beloved pets leave this world peacefully and with love.
Dr. V says
Aw Dr. Saletros, I’m so sorry about Cheshire. I think people are always surprised to hear that even us vets are plagued with the same grief and questions as everyone else in these last moments, so thank you for sharing your experience. It sounds like Cheshire was surrounded by love through every breath of his life.
Carol Martin says
They say only animals can give without reserve, but in this final act we can show that we have learned well from them… that they have bonded with us completely and we are able to give without thought for ourselves and only for their dignified and peaceful final moments. May we all go with a mouthful of ice cream and ears full of classical music and the murmurings of our soul mate. You were “the dog” and that is good. Thank you.
Dr. V says
You know, I’ve never thought of it that way, being the dog. That is a huge compliment.
You’re such a good person.
Dr. V says
Well…..debatable but I do my best. 🙂
Michelle Cotton says
It is a wonderful thing you are doing. My brother just had to let go of his 11 year old Golden, Ally, after her 6 month fight with cancer. It was the first time he’d ever been faced with this choice, and he fought the reality of it for days. I finally explained to him that Ally spent her whole live devoted to him, loving him and the family, and doing all that was asked of her. Now, at this time of her greatest need, it was his turn to give everything of himself and be there for her this one last time. It was his job to reassure her, hold her, thank her, and tell her how much we all loved her as she was let go. Of all the jobs he had in her life, this one was the most important. He finally let her go the next morning. While it broke all of our hearts, I know that Ally is feeling so much better and is running and chasing her flying squirrel with all the other animals in Heaven. To be a compassionate vet, to be able to allow someone to give their fur baby that ultimate gift in the comfort of their own home and help them through it, that, Dr. V, is truly a thing of beauty.
Dr. V says
I’m really glad you were there for your brother Michelle. I am sure he and Ally both appreciated that support.
Pamela | Something Wagging says
I always think of the vet when I’ve lost my dogs. It can’t be easy to do what is necessary, but difficult. And I hope our vets have understand the depth of my gratitude even when I’m a sobbing basket case.
It is a blessing to say goodbye to our animal friends without prolonging their pain.
I’m glad you are at peace with your new work. Thank you for doing it.
Dr. V says
And thank you for sharing your empathetic response!
Lisa Cronin says
This is a beautiful thing you are doing. The difference between the first time I had to have a dog euthanized because of incurable cancer and the second time it happened (it will be a year on June 30th, and I still miss her every day) was night and day. The first experience was a nightmare. During the second, my vet was soothing and calming and loved my dog as much as I did – the vet techs all came in to say goodbye to her and to hug me and tell me I was doing the right thing. My girl went surrounded by love and without pain. It is the most valuable service you can perform for a pet owner, I think – helping them help their loved pets move on in peace and with love. Bravo, Dr. V.
Dr. V says
Thank you Lisa. And I am so glad that the second experience was much less traumatic- it’s so very important.
Snotface Ferret says
May all of your clients be rewarded with your empathy and understanding – wishing you the best in your future Birdsonging.