Saturday, December 22, 2007

angels of death

angels of death
as my friend over at all but 1 has noted, veterinary medicine can be a bit sad sometimes. you fight hard for your patients. sometimes you win those battles, but in emergency medicine (and oncology) - often you lose those battles. yet in that inevitable truth lies a great beauty. veterinarians can offer dignified, painless death to our patients. human doctors can (legally) not. this post is not meant to be an argument for or against human euthanasia. (sidenote: when i was young, i remember hearing my parents talking about the big debate over euthanasia and the elderly. and all i could wonder was why did people care about youth in asia? end of sidenote). to discuss human euthanasia would require navigating tricky emotional and political waters - and i don't dare tread there (mainly because i believe there are multiple "right" answers to that debate - kevorkian NOT being one of them). anyhoo, as i was saying...

one thing i got to do multiple times on my externships was offer the merciful sleep of euthanasia. i also performed quite a few - considering i've only done 1 that i can remember as a vet student that actually involved an owned animal. it was a new experience for me - being the only person present as the owners said goodbye to a beloved family member. and while it was heartwrenching, it also made me profoundly thankful that i don't have to navigate the channels and trenches of human euthanasia. few people question the job that so often falls to us as animal doctors. animal euthanasia is an accepted - dare i say - embraced tradition with which few disagree (although there are dissenters). and i'm grateful for that.

there is nothing (in the animal world, that is) quite as sad as seeing a 17 year old cat with multiple diseases stop eating or drinking but still drag on and on, somehow clinging to a shred of life. or worse, to see a young, otherwise healthy animal in agony with a broken spine . it is sad to have to end the lives of these loved ones, but it is a gift too - however much (as vets and as pet owners) - we struggle with it.

i euthanized one of my patients while on externship, and i cried with the owners as if he was my own. he was a 15 year old cat - a big, black ex-tom cat, previously healthy, with sudden onset of diabetes. it was secondary to some other disease - possibly pancreatitis, portal triad syndrome, hepatic lipidosis, or all 3. he was a very, very sick kitty. despite insulin therapy, antibiotics, and fluids, he did not get better. his owners made the difficult decision after 2 days to stop treatment. i cried when i carried his lifeless body back to make him a little coffin. but the owners thanked me for my obvious caring, my involvement with them, my calm and confident nature...and in the end, they thanked me for ending their kitty's suffering.

as much as it sucks to lose one, i'm so thankful that i have the option -that owners have the option - to stop the suffering of a their animal. so while we sometimes (especially in emergency medicine) feel like the black hooded figure with the scythe - i prefer to think of us as the benevolent angels of death - guiding animals to the afterlife (whatever that may be).

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