Amber was a teenage Shepherd mix with bad kidneys. She was dying of renal failure, and she looked just like Buzzy, the tri-color dog I grew up with. I got involved in her case when she was first diagnosed, and got to know her family through their frequent visits to the clinic for diagnostics and treatment. When her time came, I knew my time had also come: after two years of avoidance, it was time for me to be in the room with a patient while they died.
I'll never forget a moment of her euthanasia. The entire family came and parked along the side street next to the clinic. Amber was too weak to walk so they gently lifted her out of the car and set her down on the grass. I met them there and helped get her inside and into an exam room. I placed an intravenous catheter in a vein in her hind leg, and then the veterinarian asked if I was going to stay. My teary eyes met Amber's mom's teary eyes and I said yes. I stood behind Amber while her family gathered around her and hugged her. They were telling her what a good girl she was and how much they loved her. I was stroking the fur over her lower back. The catheter was flushed, the euthanasia drug was given, and Amber peacefully passed on. My face looked like Niagara Falls.
A week or two later, a flower arrangement and 2 cards arrived at the clinic, one for Amber's vet, and one for me. Veterinarians and staff get thank you cards and gifts from clients from time to time, but this was my very first. Inside, Amber's owners and her two daughters thanked me for being there for Amber and said it gave them comfort to know I was caring for her when she was at the hospital. They said that even if Amber hadn't reminded me of my own dog, they believed I would have cared for her just as well. But it was the single sentence written by one of her daughters that struck me then and has stayed with me:
"I don't believe in coincidence - thank you."
Eventually, I would have had to participate in a euthanasia, regardless of whether or not the dog or cat reminded me of a pet I once had or not. But I know that Amber came into my life for a reason: she was going to leave it while I watched her go.
If I had a stone tablet on which were etched the five most brilliant things anyone has said to me over the course of my career, number one would be what a co-worker said to me once I had a few more (teary) euthanasias under my belt. She said, "If you ever have one that doesn't bother you, it's time to take a vacation. They should all bother you a little bit."
That's how I started to take control of my relationship with Death. I realized that there is no right way to handle it, so let it bother you. Do with it what you need to do. Try to recognize that it's a part of life and can be beautiful and peaceful and merciful. Realize that death is actually easiest for the deceased, and hardest for those left behind. Process all of it in your own time and don't let anybody tell you there's a "right" way to do that.
I would participate in many more deaths and euthanasias over the next 5 years in small animal practice. I got to a point where I would request to be the one to assist with favorite patients or clients, but it was still not something that was easy for me to deal with and I almost always cried. Those early years of my career were a learning and growing experience.
Colleagues of mine who sensed I was in need of a new career adventure started to ask me if I had ever considered working at the local emergency clinic.
"How exciting!", they would say.
"Death and destruction!", I would reply, "Can you imagine me dealing with all of that doom and gloom?"
And then, one day, there I was, standing at the front desk at the emergency clinic with a resume in hand, wondering if I would even be able to handle it...
(to be continued)