Like many of you, I’ve been mesmerized by the bravery of Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman who is dying of Stage IV brain cancer. After hearing the course of the disease progression from her doctors and considering what the end of her days were likely to be like, she made the incredibly difficult decision to move to Oregon, one of a handful of states in which assisted suicide is legal, and choose the day and manner in which she will die.
While her story is compelling and awful, it is not so surprising a concept. For veterinarians, taking part in these sorts of heavy decisions is an everyday occurrence, and to the Maynard family I say: I am so glad you have the ability to make that choice.
As I travel to Indianapolis for the annual meeting of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (the mouthful acronym of IAAHPC), I find myself struck by the two most common things clients say to me when I come to their home to euthanize a sick pet:
- This must be so hard.
- I wish we had this for people.
Though we all wish for ourselves, and our pets, to die peacefully and unaware in our sleep, the truth is, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes death is peaceful, but sometimes it is horrible and painful and agonizing and drawn-out. To say that is a fate worse than death is not a metaphor in this case. Death can be a relief. We don’t always get to choose the way in which we die, but when we know it is coming and it is going to be unpleasant, I am very grateful this is an option we have for our pets, and for some people.
I suppose in many ways veterinarians are leading the charge in normalizing people’s attitudes about this possibility, right in there with hospice workers and other professionals who deal with these realities. None of us probably gave that much thought when we signed the dotted line on vet school admission forms, but it’s there nonetheless.
There is a small but important distinction I wish more people made when talking about Brittany’s situation: they say, “She is choosing to die.”
This is not true. She wants very much to live. She has no choice in the matter. She is dying.
The accurate statement is, “She is choosing how to die,” and that is a vital distinction. I’ve seen differing views on this, people who genuinely believe that there is beauty in every moment of life, even in suffering an agonizing death with a ravaged body, and to that I simply say: I respect your view on it and your right to choose that end. I also respect those who choose as Brittany is doing, and I find beauty in that as well.
There are limits, of course. I do not show up at people’s homes and simply provide euthanasia on demand for pets who do not have a terminal disease. For my own emotional well-being I have very specific requirements and lines I do not cross. There are situations (such as a dangerously aggressive pet) where the lines about what is ethically acceptable are fuzzy, but my personal limits are not. I feel very proud and honored to be able to do what I do.
This is how I continue to do this every day: by reminding myself and the grieving owners that we are not killing a pet; the disease is killing him or her. We are simply aiding the process and making it more comfortable. I wish for the Maynards the same I do for my patients: comfort, peace, as much as can be gathered in a stressful situation.
I am the midwife at the end of life.
And I am OK with that.