When Veterinary Medicine Gets Personal

Posted: Nov 12, 2013
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I’m standing at the treatment table, looking down at a 120 pound Bullmastiff. Her mucus membranes are pale, she is almost completely unconscious and barely breathing. Under normal circumstances, this is the kind of case that gets my adrenaline pumping and I go on auto-pilot: Set up for IV catheter, get ready for blood samples, prep for surgery. But this case is different. My stomach is in knots and my heart is sinking. This is my co-worker’s dog.

Gus the dog

As many of us in the veterinary community know, working on animals can be very difficult. Animals are innocents and whenever an innocent is injured or ill, it tugs at the compassion in all of us, whether you know the animal personally or not. But when you know and love the animal that is injured or ill, it makes working on them that much more difficult. Every decision and intervention is fraught with the worry that you’re doing the best thing for the animal and the weight of knowing that you are the ultimate decision maker, in the case of your own pets. When I take care of a client’s animal, it is so much easier to distance myself from the emotional component of the illness. In most cases, I don’t have a relationship with the animal; I’ve probably never met them before. But when it comes to my own pets, or even my coworkers’, that distance is instantly compressed and I am immediately emotionally involved in the case. Which means that I can no longer be an efficient emergency technician because the emotion makes it that much harder to access the skills and knowledge I need to treat the patient.

I find this especially true when it comes to my own animals. I lose all perspective and find myself in a panic, wondering what to do. I usually end up calling my hospital and have a veterinarian or technician “talk me down” or remind me of why I need to take my pet in. We all have seen owners that – in our opinion – take things too far: too many interventions, too much money, too much suffering. I’ve seen it so many times, I’ve now put several of my co-workers on notice: they are the ones who will have to be sane for me when one of my pets is diagnosed with a terminal illness. And they know they must help me put the needs of my animal first, before my desire to keep them with me as long as possible. So when a coworker’s animal comes to the hospital I feel the extra burden of helping them make the most difficult decisions.

The Bullmastiff has a hemoabdomen. It’s ironic because she has been a blood donor her whole life, especially in emergencies, especially for hemoabdomen cases. We know the statistics: approximately 60% of these cases turn out to be hemangiosarcoma, a cancer with a poor prognosis. With a client-owned animal, our next step would be to type and cross-match for a blood transfusion, set up the OR and get three-view chest radiographs to check for metastases before going to surgery. But not in this case. And now we all have to say goodbye to a dog who saved so many lives.

Gus and Solo