I didn’t want to be a veterinarian when I was growing up. I loved animals, but I wanted to be a marine biologist. Of course you know that’s not the way it turned out, and I bet you suspect an animal changed the course of my life.
You’d be right.
Snow White was my perfectly sweet Samoyed, my companion and my true constant during my early adulthood, and yes, she was just that special. But she died of systemic infection after being attacked by another dog, after three weeks of fighting for her life. Her loss left me hollow.
Serissa came along not long after, in no way a replacement but a new chapter of love. She became my shadow, always quiet at my side but never in my way.
Even as Serissa and I were finding our way together, I realized that the death of Snow White had turned on an internal switch. I quit my great job and went to vet school at the age of 31. I wanted to help people who love their pets as much as I do.
After graduation, I spent a few years in general practice but didn’t feel that level of satisfaction and passion practicing inside the clinic walls. So in the summer of 2010, I partnered with my classmate, Dr. Dani McVety, and formed Lap of Love — a practice that focuses on in-home end-of-life care.
Some may think it is a depressing line of work, but that’s not how I see it. I find it wonderfully fulfilling to help families during the most difficult and emotional moments of their lives with their pets.
Could I find that to be true even when the pet was my own? Serissa, like Snow White before her, would soon help me learn another of my most important life’s lessons.
Making the last day a good day
By the summer of 2014, Serissa was a geriatric pet. Her love for me never aged, but everything else had. She had been diabetic for the last seven years, had bad hips and cataracts … and she was now getting skinnier, her hair was thinning, her bark was weak and she didn’t have the sparkle she used to have. Turns out she also had Cushings disease. Cushings and diabetes do not play well together. Keeping her eating, her sugar level stable and her quality of life good became a balancing act.
Late September I knew her time was soon coming to the end, and I would have to give heaven back the angel who was simply on loan to me. I made a promise to Serissa I would not let her suffer, and I wanted her last day to be a good day. I wanted her smiling, happy, eating and enjoying the love from her family. I wouldn’t let her die alone, and I certainly would not let her die from anyone’s hands but my own.
Many wonder how a veterinarian can euthanize her own pet. We euthanize hundreds of pets in their careers, and we know the process is peaceful and that it can be a kind. But to take the life of our own pet? Many step aside for a colleague’s help to embrace the role of family fully.
Since I euthanize many pets in my hospice practice, people assume I am immune to emotions that swirl around death. It’s actually quite the opposite. Because of my focus on end-of-life care, I have become more comfortable in the medicine and in the dying process, and this allows me to be more involved with the family, hearing the colorful stories of their beloved pet.
I believe euthanasia embodies compassion, and thus I see it differently than most.
Serissa was going to die one day, and I was going to make that day good. So I planned it, for Wednesday Oct. 1st at 4 p.m.
I was returning from a trip the week before, so that gave me some time with her when I came back. I picked 4 p.m. as that gave me the day with her. The final act would take less than an hour, and then I would cry the whole evening and fall asleep in my grief.
That was the plan, anyway.
Instead, my anxiety was full-blown the Wednesday before “the day”. It was too hard to focus, with “the day” a constant in my head and my heart. Every day, I’m was thinking, “this is my last Thursday”, “… my last weekend” “ … my last Tuesday’. When it was Tuesday at 4 p.m., all I could think of was, “this time tomorrow …”. The anxiety of the upcoming event was numbing, and I knew saying goodbye to my girl was going to rip my heart out.
I rested on the knowledge that it was the best thing for her.
Wednesday morning came and as promised – we made it a great day! She ate whatever she wanted. We walked, laughed, played and took a million precious pictures and videos. I fought back the tears poorly. Was I going to miss my girl!
The veterinarian in me knew exactly what I was going to do. I do this every day, after all, as a hospice-care veterinarian. I was going to give her the first medication, a lovely cocktail of pain relief and mild sedation, to make her feel awesome. The second medication is simply an overdose of anesthesia. This medication first puts the pet into a nice deep sleep. Respiratory and cardiac function then slows down and stops, and the pet dies in her sleep. I wanted that for Serissa: To feel really good before she passed in her sleep. With euthanasia, I could guarantee that for her.
The second medication is typically given in a vein although alternate routes can be used. For Serissa, I gave this step a lot of thought. You see, I wanted to be hugging my girl as she left this world. I wanted to be whispering to her how much she was adored and how much I will miss her.
But I couldn’t be in two places at one time. I couldn’t be injecting the medication into her leg vein and be spooning her at the same time. So I decided to go with an alternate route and inject the second medication into her abdominal cavity. The only difference with this route, is that it would take longer, about 30 – 45 minutes. But I thought, “Death doesn’t have to be instant. Death is a phase anyway so she will sleep like a princess and slowly drift off.”
That’s what I chose to do.
The final chapter opens … and closes
Four o’clock came around too quickly.
As planned, I gave Serissa the first medication, and in about five minutes she started to get sleepy and her perfect chocolate brown eyes got drowsy. She quietly lied down and began to snore peacefully. How I would miss that snore! She laid there in absolute perfection while I simply loved on her. Then I gave her the second medication. Oddly, the act of pushing the plunger was not hard as I thought it would be, since I knew I was helping her. I knew that no one else needed to do it but me. I knew she was no longer in pain. I knew she knew I loved her. I knew she loved me unconditionally.
It was, quite simply, an honor for me to help her earn her angel wings that day.
I put my syringe away, and I lay down behind her. I snuggled her for one last time. I just closed my eyes and felt her breathing … and then it began to slow down. Thirty minutes after giving her the final medication, she stopped breathing. Her death could not have been more peaceful and beautiful. She had a good life, and I was able to give her a good death.
I made a paw impression and clipped some fur. I made a little casket for her, wrapped her in a pretty blanket and surrounded her with flowers. I also put some pasta in there for her (did she love pasta!). Looking down at her, I realized that I was no longer crying. I was actually smiling. I knew she was no longer suffering, and that now she was OK. The anxiety I was carrying around was instantly lifted. All I could do was smile and be thankful for such an amazing co-pilot in life.
I know she is watching over me from above and when I see my shadow, I think of her. On Oct. 1st 2014 heaven became much brighter with my angel up there. October 1st was a good day. And one year later, it still is.