WARNING: This post contains black humor and may be considered by some to be grounds for setting me on fire and dancing about my smoldering corpse.
I am an emergency veterinarian and on occasion I have to euthanize patients. It's never funny, and I would not dare to mine humor from that act. Tucked in amongst the many acts of euthanasia that I have performed, however, there is one that stands out from the rest and contains within it a nugget of mirth, like a diamond shining in the depths of a very deep, dark mine shaft. I hope you will agree.
It is an immutable fact of life that some pets reach a point where their lives are no longer judged to be acceptable and we are able to humanely end their suffering quickly and painlessly; a final kindness. The act of euthanasia, though, is a field strewn with professional land mines. I don’t mean ethical land mines – that’s a topic for another day. I mean the nuts and bolts of the act itself. From the initial phone call from the family, on through to the hospital visit, right up to the moment of the irreversible act itself, there are lots of ways to mess it up. You can be too emotional, too cold, too quick or cause undue delay. You can rush the owners during the visit, or seem detached and distracted. When an owner brings a pet in to the hospital for euthanasia, you have to get it just right or the situation can quickly descend into a nightmare for everyone.
This is the story of one such nightmare event. I don’t remember the specifics of the incident – the pet’s name, the family, the medical condition that put euthanasia on the table. My poor memory and the passage of time have protected their identity.
Owners often want to visit with their pet before we administer the injection of barbiturate anesthetic which stops the heart. The timing of this visit is crucial. There’s nothing worse than having already said your good-byes, then waiting around for what seems like an eternity for the doctor to appear. (Actually, brain cancer and world hunger are worse, but you get the picture.) Conversely, you don’t want the doctor to blunder in while you’re still spending your last moments with your pet. So, some form of notification system would be in order – some way that would be as clear as a bell that would indicate that the last visit is over and the family is ready for the doctor. So, I decided on just that - a bell.
I purchased one of those remote control doorbell gizmos, with a little battery-powered button that sets off a doorbell (from my favorite boutique, eBay) . Before the final visit, we would give the button to owners, who in theory could push the button when the visit was over, and the doorbell portion (kept in the back room where we watched drag-racing on TV in between cases) would make a pleasant dingy-ringy sort of sound and I knew that they were through visiting and I could enter the room. Simple, clean and (so I thought at the time) foolproof, which is good, because I can be a bit of a fool at times. So, it was me-proof.
On this particular day, I'd talked with the family, gone over medical options and helped them reach their decision, as I always do. I explained the procedure and what they could expect to see – the fact that the eyes stay open, the amazing speed with which the drug takes hold, the reflex last breath that seems like a hiccup. Nothing was any different from the many times I had helped families and pets through this process in the past. I handed over the little button for the doorbell, which we had used successfully at this hospital for months, and told them to visit as long as they liked and to just push the button when they were ready. They tearfully, and somewhat nervously, said they would visit for about five minutes. I went back to my drag racing. Vroom!
After 5 minutes, I waited to hear the doorbell. At ten minutes, I grew a little concerned. Sometimes grief can dilate time, so I thought it best to wait it out and see if they just needed a few more minutes. At the fifteen-minute mark, I figured something was up and I decided to check on the family. Perhaps the battery had died on the remote, or I put them in a room outside the range of the wireless signal. I timorously knocked on the door and nudged it open. The family was there, gathered around their pet, seeming even more grief-stricken than when I had left them 15 minutes before.
“We just can’t do it,” the matriarch of the family said.
“I’m sorry; I know this is a tough decision. It’s never easy to lose a beloved companion,” I said. I thought perhaps they were having second thoughts about the euthanasia, and might want to explore other options. It happens on occasion.
“No, you don’t understand – we just can’t push the button.”
I must have looked at them rather quizzically, because after I said that the mother’s expression modulated from one of sadness to the sort of face you might show to an odd child after they ask if they can have ice cream for dinner or walk into the room dragging a rotten tomato on a string.
I sputtered a bit and said, “I’m sorry…I…don’t...”
“We just can’t push the button and kill him. It’s too hard! We thought you were going to give him an injection or something.”
Suddenly the tumblers aligned, the lock opened and I understood. The realization hit me like a bad analogy of something heavy and terribly stupid hitting something even stupider: they thought the doorbell button activated some sort of death-row euthanasia machine. I stood there gaping for a millisecond, trying to sweep up my composure from the little bits that had scattered on the floor like Satan’s dandruff.
In all of the things that I had considered that could go wrong with a euthanasia, this had never entered my ken. I did not even have the ability ahead of time to see that this sort of thing could go this wrong in this way. In that instant, I knew what it felt like to know just how much I didn’t know, how unprepared I was for what the universe could do to me. If fate could throw this one at me, blindside me with it, what else could it do in its capricious malevolence? What if I went to my car at the end of the day and it was full of knife-wielding mimes, stabbing at me silently? What if I woke up to find my refrigerator had been turned into a live boar overnight? Anything was now possible. I had rent a, well…I guess, rent a hole in the fabric of the universe and let in monstrous, tentacled beasts intent on filling my boary refrigerator with mimes.
I swooned for a moment over the sheer sadness and confusion of it all, and then composed myself. The whole internal dialog from my comprehension to the bit about mimes and boars had only taken a fraction of a second. I’m a quick thinker, unless doorbells and euthanasia are involved.
“No, I am so very sorry – I didn’t explain very well.” I started, horrified. “That button just rings a little bell in the back, so I know you are done visiting.”
I attempted a wry half-smile to try and inject a molecule of levity into the situation, which was worsening by the second. It didn’t work.
“It doesn’t do the process by itself – I would never, ever make someone euthanize their own pet.” A cascade of sincere apology flowed out of me, trying to make things right again. It was futile – the damage was done, and this was one egg I could not unscramble.
After a bit, they seemed to calm down and regain their composure. They weren’t mad, per se, just sort of stunned and in utter disbelief.
I was horrified, mortified and ashamed – I had taken arguably one of the worst and suckiest experiences that a person can have in their life and pretty much tripled the level of suck inherent in it. Maybe quadrupled.
I explained again what to expect and that I would be giving an IV injection of an anesthetic overdose, and that it would work rapidly to end their pet’s suffering. Without a machine. No doorbells or little buttons this time, just good ol’ Dr. Dumbass pushing the plunger like the previous thousand times he had done it. They said they were ready, but I caught sidelong glances that seemed to say, “What’s he gonna pull this time?”
The rest of it went like it always did - smoothly. They said their good-byes and I apologized several dozen times more before they left. By the end of it, they were probably wishing they could push the button and euthanize me, just so I would shut the hell up and quit apologizing. They left without incident. I think I downed four shots of cherry brandy and a Zima chaser when I got home that night, just to shut up the mimes.
Nothing bad ever happened after that incident – no lawsuits, no flaming online posts about how Dr. Kevetkian made them push the shiny button of death on their beloved pet, no letterbombs addressed to me. The universe seemed to heal up the little rent I had caused and the beasts decided that things were fine where they came from, thanks very much, and there was no need to enter our dimension.
Yet. My fridge stayed a fridge and the only thing in my car was the mountain of empty Yoo-Hoo cans that occupied the back seat. (I have a problem – I know. I am seeking help. It’s like chocolate milk, only better, it’s…well, never mind. Just don’t try it. Yoo-Hoo©: Not even once.)
I can only hope that the poor family was buoyed up by the many happy memories that their pet had given them over the years, and the really horrible, awful, not-even-remotely-good thing that happened with the doorbell at the euthanasia became a faded memory as time went by. As for me, we kept using the doorbell, but I was rock-solid certain to explain that all it did was make the little bell in the back go ringy-dingy so I knew when the visit was over. That OK? Got it? Really? Promise?
I’m sure some folks were a little perplexed after that incident as to why I was so oddly specific about the little button, and why I perhaps seemed a little overeager or even afraid and wanted to make sure they understood its function. I knew, but I wasn’t letting on.
That was just between me and the mimes.