I’ve been a technician working in emergency medicine for a long time. I have worked on some amazing patients and seen diseases and traumas and broken animals gleefully skip out the front door; proud of my team and our success. I have also seen the sadness and loss of emergency medicine. I have been part of too many euthanasias to count. I have silently stood by grieving owners; I have offered support and shed tears for those patients who cannot fight anymore. There’s something about the impending holiday seasons that brings up these feelings of loss, and magnifies the sadness of euthanasia this time of year.
Some of these experiences are ones I will never forget. Like the husky mix that we treated for weeks, looking for the cancer that we never found. We did every test imaginable, hospitalized him for random swelling, anorexia, anemia, hypoproteinemia, you name it he had it and we tried to fix it. Criticalist, Internist, Surgeon, Radiologist, no one could find the reason so we just kept treating his symptoms and trying to make him better. Technicians would sneak their lunch upstairs and try to entice him to eat anything on his own. We called each other on our days off to give progress reports. As he neared the end I remember sitting in his kennel with him, petting his soft head and whispering to him that it was okay to let go – he had given his best shot and he needed to make the decision that the rest of us could not.
Or the dogs that fell victim to the poison left in a popular Portland park. By the time we had 5 or 6 of these dogs in the hospital we knew what was wrong, but we also knew that none of the dogs had survived. Their owners knew each other and would ask about the other dogs suffering the same fate as their own. They knew all of us by name and knew our shift times – and we all cried together as these beloved pets were euthanized as they continued to get worse despite treatment.
Or the boxer with bilateral chest tubes (that we had seen multiple times in the past for spontaneous pneumothorax) recovering from a lung lobectomy that started massively bleeding into her chest as I was taking her vitals. This dog that we autotransfused via that chest tube until her owners arrived to euthanize her because they didn’t want to put her through another surgery. She was such a brave girl who had a tail wag for everyone.
The most common comment I get from people when they find out what I do is “Oh it must be so sad! How can you see animals in pain like that?” I try to answer with the “Yes but we do so many good things and help so many that it’s a good balance.” Most of the time that’s true, but how do we deal with grief when the bad seems to outweigh the good? I don’t have a definitive answer, I just know that going home and squeezing your own pets is enormously therapeutic. Remember that euthanasia is a great gift that we can offer suffering animals. Remember that without sadness we would not be able to experience the great joy of new puppies or sending pets home with their family. Talk with your team about these cases. Having support at home is one thing, but having the support of coworkers who understand the bond that forms with patients is a great help. We as veterinary professionals have a difficult time sometimes sharing these feelings with each other, but we need to do this in order to handle some of the rough days.
Remember those patients. Don’t dwell on the sadness, but dwell on what it was about them that made them so memorable. Was it their goofy way of greeting you when they came to the clinic? Was it their stoic nature through all of their treatments? Was it how they only ate for you because you were their favorite? In the middle of the dark parts, remember the good things about what we do. Remember that, while difficult and weighty, euthanasia is the final gift that we give in exchange for a life of unconditional love. Remember all of the wonderful memories that pets and animals have added to your life. Remember that you are never alone in any sadness that you may be feeling; there is always a fuzzy soul willing to share the moment.
In memory of all of the wonderful pets that we have all lost over the past year.