Veterinary Professionals and Grief Resilience

Posted: Dec 12, 2013
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Last night I lost sleep over a dog I never knew when he was alive. We all have those cases where the pet was awesome or the clients were stellar or some combination of those attributes. Then when the case “ended” for the pet, you carry your own thorn of sadness. I’m not talking about one of those cases.

Yesterday I was sitting briefly in our upstairs break room, chatting with my surgery technician, when the overhead page announced “STAT triage to the parking lot with a gurney.” Because we are who we are, and we work where we do, we both immediately paused our conversation to look through the window and into the parking lot. We were the only two in the kitchen and it became silent but for the humming of vending machines. Then we looked back at each other, failed miserably to pick up our previously animated conversation, made lame excuses and left the room going opposite directions.

DoveLewis parking lot, as seen from upstairs kicthen

In the space of less than a minute, we’d been catapulted from the mundane world of why some surgery packs end up wrapped backwards to experiencing, by proxy, the absolutely crushing pain of a pet owner discovering he didn’t make it to the hospital in time. The fact that we could hear nothing through the insulated glass made no difference. I could feel in my soul the whole-body sobs that wracked the young man as he knelt by his car. That it was too late to help his dog was brutally clear. His silvering black lab muzzle, frozen in a grimace, was thrown back on the passenger seat with the rest of the dog curled in a tight ball beneath the dash, hiding in vain from the killing heat of an August day.

In every inch of the man’s tall frame, collapsed and hugging his dead companion, he radiated the self-knowledge of having done this to his pet. The technician and TA (technician assistant) waited respectfully just behind the man. The technician’s hand rested on his shoulder, a simple acknowledgement of his pain and her presence. Even now, my heart aches for the owner, for our TA and technician, for the rest of the hospital team here yesterday who had any contact with this case, and even for my technician and I, who were so abruptly swept into this unfathomable ocean of pain.

I want to be angry with this owner, for leaving his dog in the car while he ran an errand. I want to call him names and curse all ignorant, thoughtless people. But that is not this owner. From a second story window I can tell in one searing glance; this is not the result of laziness or selfishness or any other human failing. His act of leaving his dog in a car on a hot afternoon was simply a mistake that will burn in this man’s heart for the rest of his days. He is already suffering a greater punishment than any of us could administer with judgement.

Sometimes I am amazed that we are able to come back to work, day after day, emergency after emergency, sad story after sad story. We are a resilient species. I hope sincerely that young man is able to pass through the phase of justified self-condemnation and into the comparable peace of grief.

That's why we seize the moment,
try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it,
Cause we consider these minutes golden
Eminem (Sing For The Moment)