Regular YCM readers may note that my Animal Health columns often alternate between strictly medical ones describing new procedures or providing seasonal health tips with more philosophical articles which reflect on the more personal aspects of the relationships we have with animals. Last month’s column reported on the alarming reports of certain pet jerky treats which may be causing severe illness. Accordingly, (and appropriately as we approach the end of 2013) our column this month will take a look back and share some perspectives which may help us all prepare for another wonderful year with our pets.
Personally, my own look back is a happy one; despite the reality of the ever-enlarging bald spot on top of my head (I was in a restaurant yesterday and received a sobering view of the back of my head on the closed circuit TV screen by the register!) Our first grandchild was born in February and is a beautiful reminder of what’s really important in life, several family health concerns have turned out better than expected, and the challenges and losses experienced by several close friends have been a reminder of how meaningful the relationships in our lives really are.
The specific inspiration for this month’s column actually comes from an article my wife found which was written by a vet who works as an emergency veterinarian. (I have attached the link to the article, and encourage you to check it out and see how she truly cares for her patients despite the frustrations she experiences.)
http://lindseylaneverlander.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-reality-of-veterinary-medicine.html?m=1 ) In her blog, Dr. Verlander gave a brief glimpse into a very sad day at her office, during which three separate families were faced with very tragic and unexpected news. As the bearer of those tidings, Dr. Verlander felt the pain of the families’ reactions and bore the guilt of their sadness. She shared those experiences to help her readers understand how deeply she cares for her patients and to understand that her eyes are on the interests of her patients not on financial reward.
The sad news she had to share: the death of a patient, the severe medical need that was beyond a family’s ability to treat, and the diagnosis of cancer that would soon result in euthanasia, truly is an example of what we deal with in our profession every day. She is absolutely correct in using those examples to illustrate the depth of caring, the breadth of medical knowledge, and the limited concrete “rewards” that are the hallmarks of Veterinary Medicine, and as I look at her examples I agree with her. But I would like to offer a slightly different perspective on our profession, flavored by two of my own experiences over the past week. Both involve frustration and sadness, but both are also inspiring stories of relationship, commitment, and love.
A very senior cat came in for euthanasia last week. A beloved family member, her health had continued to decline for a number of months. Several organ systems were not working efficiently, and the combination of age and weakened systems had taken their toll. She was not able to be very mobile, her appetite and weight had dropped dramatically, and her breathing had become more labored. Although she was not in pain, her family was suffering: she had been their indoor pet for many years, and they were hurting both for her and for their impending loss. Their decision was absolutely right and completely loving, but it still hurt. As she very peacefully passed away, we all shed tears of sadness and meaning.
My reflection is that this is how it should always be. The relationships we have with our pets should be so meaningful that we find the decision to let go difficult and painful, and at the same time find the years we do have them with them to have been worth all the pain. I am always sad when a family who loves their pet finds that they have to make such dreadful decision, but am also very grateful that they care enough to struggle with the decision and to find the strength to help them in such a selfless way. I feel very privileged to be able to help both the pet and the family at that important time.
Another one of my patients had a major surgery at the Carolina Veterinary Specialists last week. Unfortunately, tests at the specialist’s office had discovered a rare type of intestinal cancer, and surgery to remove the tumor was necessary to relieve a partial obstruction of the large intestine. Post-operative complications for that type of surgery are common, and the family is still working through the difficult recovery period.
This is not the first cancer surgery this dog has had. Understanding the pet’s journey over the past few years will help put his current illness and his family’s relationship with him in better perspective.
Ten years ago he was badly injured by a car, and major surgery was needed to repair a complicated fracture of his pelvis. This was an intensive procedure and involved prolonged postoperative care at home…a major commitment of money and time. Despite the difficulties, he did very well for many years. Then, five years ago, he was diagnosed with a bladder cancer which required another special surgery to excise the tumor and preserve his ability to urinate normally. Another long-term recovery period was required at home, with a continuing commitment to helping him get better.
Many families have faced similar challenges with their own pets. All of them have wanted to help their pets in the best ways: sometimes the right decision has been to proceed with an intensive course of therapy; at other times the right choice for the family and the pet has been to relieve pain and prevent further difficulties. When this most recent intestinal cancer problem arose, this family had nothing to prove…they had already shown their desire to help their pet in the best ways that they could. The decisions they made to proceed with intestinal cancer surgery, and now to help work through the post-operative process, have been solely motivated by their love for their pet. There may be some tough times ahead, but they are committed to help the pet they love in the right ways. When we discussed some of the options and some of the possible outcomes, there was no hesitation in their desire to help him.
Again, this is how it should always be. We don’t always have control over when and how our pets get sick (when there are ways to prevent illness and prolong good health I have tried to share them with you in this column), but we do have control over how we respond to those problems. When we love our pets and make decisions on how to help them based on that love for them the decisions, whichever they may be, are always right.
That is why these two stories inspire me. They are excellent examples of how the relationships with our pets make a difference on our lives and how we can find hope and comfort in even the most frustrating circumstances. The family who had to make the difficult decision for their cat is expecting their first child in the next two weeks…she will already be born by the time you read this. The love they showed their pet over the past two decades will be focused on their new child, and I’m sure they will have wonderful Christmas season! The family whose pet recently had the surgery will daily see the difference they have made in their pet’s life, and be constantly reminded of how much love our pets give back to us as well.
As a veterinarian, I am tremendously blessed to be able to help families who recognize how important our pet relationships are.
As I reflect over the past year and recall the challenges and the joys, I look forward to another year; I’m sure it will be full of the same. I wish for all of you the best that the Christmas season has to offer: the Peace that we can find in the relationships we have given, the Hope for health and healing and renewal in the coming year, and the Love God has for all of us.