Where's Your Line?

Posted: Jul 1, 2014
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­It’s Christmas Eve, maybe 2002 and my dog Jack is vomiting and lethargic. I am not a veterinary technician yet, just a confused and worried client. My regular vet tells me that she’s worried about Jack and thinks he should be monitored in a veterinary hospital, at least overnight. Of course, my clinic is closing, but she refers to me to the local e-clinic.

When I get there, the veterinarian on duty tells me Jack has a life-threatening obstruction and needs emergency surgery right away or he’ll die. I burst into tears and call my regular vet, who disagrees with the emergency vet’s assessment and recommends a barium series. The emergency vet explains that having all that barium in the GI tract if she has to operate would be too risky so it has to be surgery. Shell-shocked, we leave Jack in their care and head to the lobby where we’re presented with a $5,000 estimate and informed that we must leave a 50% deposit to save our dog’s life. On Christmas Eve. What did we do? Put our credit card down on the counter and planned for a long winter and spring of credit card payments.

Luckily, Jack didn’t end up needing foreign body surgery. But the situation prompted my husband and I to have a discussion about where we would “draw the line” when it comes to veterinary care for our pets. And in that moment we realized that, if there were something we could fix we would fix it, no matter what it cost.

Liz Hughston's dog, Jack.

(Jack at home.)

I started vet tech school a couple of years later and now we live in a world of professional discounts, making financial decisions about our pets much, much easier. But I work with many clients facing the same decision we faced that night:

How far should we go?

How much can we afford?

Where do we draw the line?

I remember one family in particular. They had a collie in the hospital with us with fairly severe neurologic signs. He circled, he had trouble walking, he couldn’t target his food bowl to eat and needed to be hand fed. We recommended a consult with a specialist, which the owners pursued. The specialist recommended an MRI, at a cost of around $2,000 (at that time), and the owners agreed. The MRI showed diffuse lesions: nothing surgical. We continued to provide supportive care, and follow the neurologist’s recommendations for treatment, but he was not getting better. The family visited him a lot and I got to know them over the course of the collie’s hospitalization. I remember sitting in the run with the father of the family. He told me they had all sat down – he, his wife, and their two daughters – and had a discussion very similar to the discussion my husband and I had so many years ago ("Should we continue? Where is the line?"). They explained the medical situation to the kids, and told them that the whole family had to decide how they were going to move forward. One of the daughters asked him, “What happens if I get sick? Would you stop trying to fix me? Our dog is part of the family, too, and he’s sick so we can’t stop trying.” So they set an upper limit and explained that this meant no vacations, no Christmas presents, and probably no birthday presents. The whole family agreed. The collie began to show some improvement and when the invoice hit their upper limit, they took him home from the hospital, where he continued to improve and lived for two more years.

The lesson for me is that there is no underestimating the human-animal bond and what people are willing to do – the lengths they will go to – for their pets. Yes, we have clients who won’t pay for preventive care or for life-saving treatments, but there are those who will sacrifice so much to ensure the happiness and well being of their pets. Every time I present an estimate to a client I think about my experience at the emergency hospital and I empathize with the difficult decisions they must make. And I remember the collie and how far his people were willing to go – farther than many staff thought reasonable. But everyone’s line is in a different place and for some people the line doesn’t even exist.

Where is your line?