Monday, March 10, 2008

A Typical Sunday

At the Animal Emergency Center:

I’d been there for six hours. Nothing had died, nothing had been euthanized. The hospital was full; a manx with megacolon and rectal prolapse, a greyhound with hemorrhagic gastric enteritis, a cat that had been hit by a car and had a dislocated tail, a basset hound that was hit by a car and had skull and jaw fractures, a dachshund with intervertebral disc disease who was paralyzed and recovering from back surgery, an old german shepherd who had immune-mediated thrombocytopenia (low platelets), a border collie in kidney failure, a chihuahua who got into rat poison, another dachshund with gastroenteritis and severe dehydration, a stray miniature australian shepherd with a broken femur, our rescue pug puppy and an old cat with an upper respiratory infection.

* * *

Several other animals filtered through the hospital but didn’t have to stay; an australian shepherd puppy run over in the driveway, a karelian bear dog whos front legs were run over, a sheepdog with a laceration and an old schnauzer with liver cancer in need of pain management.

* * *

2:00 pm: The shepherd’s elderly owner came to visit. She had left her husband, who was hard of hearing and had just been diagnosed with bladder cancer, at home.

We discussed the shepherd’s test results; the dog had lived through the night (which was a miracle in and of itself) but had not improved as much as we would like. This elderly couple would not be able to care for the dog at home; he would need to be carried outside to go to the bathroom, had horrible diarrhea and was at risk for sudden death. This sweet old woman knew what she had to do. She chose to euthanize her dog.

We brought the dog into the room and with her kneeling by his head he passed quietly and quickly with an anesthetic overdose. The woman stood, visibly shaken; smacked in the face by mortality. She hugged me, a long hug, a need for human connection, a need to feel a part of something larger than oneself. Then she went home to care for her ill husband.

2:20 pm: A geriatric cat presented for euthanasia. He was not well and his owner wished to end his suffering. The owner did not want to be present. The cat was unceremoniously euthanized on the treatment table.

2:30 pm: A good samaritan brought in a baby robin with a broken wing and broken leg. An intentional overdose of anesthetic gas put the bird out of his misery.

4:00 pm: A fourteen-year-old border collie mix presented in respiratory distress; she had laryngeal paralysis. The dog’s owner wore dark sunglasses in the exam room; she already knew what she came in for. We sedated the dog and discussed treatment options; surgery to fix the paralyzed larynx, sedation and oxygen therapy to improve respiratory function (a temporary fix), or euthanasia. The owner was crying. She didn’t want to put her dog through anything else. She wanted to be present. The dog passed quietly in her arms. Her neighbor comforted her and took her home.

5:30 pm: Two large cats were brought into the clinic; 20 pounds each. They were siblings, sixteen-years-old and had never been apart. When separated they’d cry out until the other was in sight. One of the cats was injured, he couldn’t walk, he was in shock. The other cat huddled next to him gently grooming his head. The owners did not think one cat could live without the other. The cats’ health had been slowly deteriorating and the owners chose to euthanize both kitties. A technician came into the room with me. The cats were snuggled together. We euthanized them simultaneously so one wouldn’t have to watch the other. They passed in each other’s arms.

7:00 pm: A severely neurologic weimaraner was admitted for overnight hospitalization and monitoring.

7:30 pm: A visibly upset and crying client brought in a rabbit for euthanasia. The rabbit had cancer and spinal problems. He was fourteen-years-old. Bawling she held him for the injection. She chose a private cremation; she wanted her bunny’s ashes for her children.

7:45 pm: Called the crematorium, the freezer was full, we needed a pick-up.

8:00 pm: My family came, they brought me dinner. I spent 5 minutes with the kids playing with the clinic’s rescue puppy.

8:10 pm: While suturing a laceration I rounded the night doctor on our cases. The doctor was crabby, probably not yet fully awake. I told him I could not remember whether or not I told the dachshund’s owner about morning pick-up.

8:30 pm: Finished surgery. Night doctor asked me if I told the dachshund’s owner about pick-up. I told him I did not remember, I had talked with the owners briefly as I was going to euthanize the kitties but I did not remember if I told them to pick up.

He repeated back to me, “What?! Did you or did you not tell them about the morning?”

Perhaps I was not speaking English. Perhaps I had lapsed into tongue. I changed verbage, “I do not recall.”


“I ...DO...NOT...RECALL! I SPOKE TO THEM BUT I DON’T REMEMBER IF I TOLD THEM ABOUT THE MORNING!” (I wish on you a bloat. No double bloats and a bleeding spleen.)

I felt like a child who had just had her buttons pushed by a sibling. My chest was tightening and I had an overriding urge to sweep the charts off the counter and onto the floor like a petulant child losing at Monopoly. I'd follow that spectacular move by picking the charts up one-by-one and fling them full force at his face. Instead I turned and walked away. I took the charts and holed up in the office. Meanwhile he called the owners. I had not told them about morning pick-up. He gave them the needed information.

8:35 pm: Threw first completed chart rather aggressively on counter for faxing.

8:36 pm: Apologized to receptionist.

8:45 pm: Office chair yoga, a cup of tea and music; the nerves started to calm.

9:30 pm: Charts completed.

9:45 pm: Finished doctor rounds without any further altercations.

10:00 pm: Arrived home, kissed children, sent them to bed.

* * *

I am paid to fight death. Every time I go to work I put on my gloves and enter the ring with the reaper. Some rounds I win. Some rounds he wins. Some rounds I concede to him, my hands in the air; tired of the blows I give up. Why do I keep fighting? The cumulative score is in his favor; at best I slow his progress but in the end he will always prevail.

* * *

“Somedays won't end ever and somedays pass on by,
I'll be working here forever, at least until I die.
Dammed if you do, dammed if you don't
I'm supposed to get a raise week, you know damn well I won't.

Workin' for a livin' (workin')
Workin' for a livin' (workin')
Workin' for a livin', livin' and workin'
I'm taking what they giving 'cause I'm working for a livin'.”

- Huey Lewis and The News

* * *

Benjamin Franklin’s Epitaph:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer
Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents Torn Out And
Stripped of its Lettering and Gilding,
Lies Here
Food for Worms
But the Work Shall not be Lost,
For it Will as He Believed
Appear Once More
In a New and more Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author

* * *
Like today's photo? Check out Best Shot Monday at Mother May I.


Bridge said...

What a day!
It inspires me to write about my day as a social worker. Sometimes, its as if I cannot bring the words to my lips when I am not at work because it brings up emotions that I DO NOT want to experience when in the house with my family. Like keeping work and famiyl totally separate.
My daughter's dream is to be the "doggy doctor" that is only second to being a real live fairy elf.

Maggie said...

Your shot is gorgeous. And what a touching and eloquent post.

Honorary Indian said...

I am speechless. Are you a vet?! What a special person you are to be called into a profession where you must not only deal with the death of those beloved creatures but also the grief suffered by the owners who are left behind.

Very powerful story. I appreciate you re-telling it. I hope it was therapeutic for you.

And, thank goodness there are compassionate people like you to balance out not-so-compassionate night doctors.

sara/gardenhoe said...

that post moved me to tears.
harriet was back a the vet's today, and every time i sit in that little examining room and wait I can feel the energy within those walls. It is odd and unsettling, the happy mixed with all the sadness, all that energy amd emotion. Mostly I think about how much i admire what they do every day, what you do. and i am so very thankful for it.

sadalit said...

shalet, the section about the two 20-lb cats who had never been apart really got to me. I don't think I would be emotionally strong enough to do the work you do. I have never had a problem working with blood, intestines, infections, etc. but I think I would probably cry in front of the clients in cases like that.

maya said...

i don't know how you do it. i remember wanting to be a vet when i was a kid (then i realized i'd have to study science. ha ha).

seriously, it's got to be hard, hard work. two of the most difficult things i've ever endured in my life were putting two of my cats to sleep. but i'm glad there are people who can handle it. i couldn't read past the two sibling kitties holding each other.