There was a bit of a rough morning for me today. My second patient of the day was a schnauzer that I had diagnosed with a heart murmur four months ago, but had not come in for an evaluation. He came in with congestive heart failure, and the owners decided to put him to sleep. While I was preparing to do that, a young cat who had been hit by a car suddenly came in. She was in shock, and had severely fractured her left hind leg with bone poking through the skin. Additionally, she didn't have any feeling or movement in her hind legs, apparently having suffered a broken back and spinal damage. Her owners also decided to euthanize. So I went from one to the other, trying to end the suffering of these two pets.
As a vet, euthanasia is one of the hardest things we have to do. Yes, it does help to end the pain and suffering that a seriously ill or injured pet is feeling, and knowing that allows us to be able to give the injection. However, we are knowingly ending a pet's life, and that is a very serious decision. I never take it or recommend it lightly, even though I think there are definitely circumstances where it's necessary. Today, I told the clients of the schnauzer that treatment might be possible, but without it euthanasia was the best option. To the cat's owner, I told them that there really wasn't another option given the severity of the injuries. In both cases, I was helping severely and even terminally sick patients.
As hard as it is to actually be the one doing the injection, the harder part is knowing how to relate to the clients. I'll admit that I don't feel comfortable with human grief, and often feel at a loss when dealing with clients whose pets I am putting to sleep. However, I also know what they're feeling, as I've had to watch it happen to my own pets, and even had to personally euthanize one of my own cats. Everyone handles it differently, so it's hard to know how to prepare. I've had some people simply say a quick goodbye and leave. Others have broken down until they couldn't stand and grabbed onto me. Most of them simply cry. Many times I've thought that it's harder to see a grown man cry than a woman. But however it happens, I have to be there with them when they say goodbye.
Goodbyes are never easy. Many of these people have had the pet for years, and it's a valuable member of the family. Some want to be there with them when the light leaves the eyes and the pet breathes their last, while some find it too hard to see these final moments. Unfortunately, this is not something they really teach us in veterinary school, and some doctors learn it better than others. I'd like to think that I've learned some ways to help comfort people during this time, though I also feel like I still struggle. No matter what I say or do, it often seems inadequate. Putting an arm around someone, telling them they made the right decision, and allowing them to lean on me when they cry is about all that I can do, and I know that it doesn't completely make up for the fact that they now no longer have their friend and companion.
For any who have lost a pet, my heart goes out to you.