Very often during a euthanasia procedure, a tearful client will mention that this must be the hardest part of my job. I’m always torn at this question because part of me wants to just take the easy route and say “yes”, but the part of me that forces me to always tell the truth no matter what always prevails and says “well, not really.” Which is horrible, because the death of the pet is the worst thing about pet ownership, by far.
However, as the one who administers the fatal blow, I feel like my role is to end the patients suffering. I know that there is all kinds of emotional turmoil on the client end, and I try to help as best as I can with the decision-making process, but on my end I have to wall off the emotional impact of what I do or I’d go nuts. I think it’s a coping mechanism used by DVM’s, physicians and anyone who works in the industry where we have to deal with death. The pet is suffering, his quality of life is poor, there’s nothing else I can do, I believe in The Rainbow Bridge, then euthanasia is a method I have to use to end the suffering.
The worst thing about this job, the thing that keeps me up at night and makes me fantasize about other careers is less clear-cut.
I became a vet because I like science, animals and figuring things out. When I graduated all dewy eyed and idealistic I thought being a vet consisted of seeing a sick patient, then gathering lots of info about it via exam, history, testing, diagnosing said patient, then treating accordingly.
The reality is that there are times that I feel blindfolded, with my hands tied because I’m limited by the client’s financial constraints, expectations and beliefs about what veterinary care consists of and costs.
The bottom line is our patients don’t speak. We don’t have a crystal ball that can tell us what is making your pet lay around more and not eat well. We do the best that we can with our wits and whatever tests you let us run.
Sometimes we have to make do with just our wits.
Usually we can get by with that, but in difficult cases it’s not enough.
There is a wealth of diagnostic testing available out there to help us make the diagnosis: ultrasound, MRI, CT, laproscopy, nuclear medicine, PCR testing, advanced serology. It’s fascinating and exciting, but usually unavailable due to cost. That’s when that blindfolded, tied up feeling closes in because the client still wants us to tell them, without a doubt, what is wrong with their pet. A physical exam can only get us so far. We have to use whatever information we can get and give it our best guess.
The result of this limit to our diagnostic capabilities is a sense of constant lingering doubt: did I guess the right thing? Am I on the right track? Am I missing something? What if the patient dies? What if the client is wasting their money? What if I picked the wrong test?
It’s the “what if’s” that kill me.
Addendum: I wrote this blog as a “catharsis”, my friend and fellow veterinarian Dr. Rich Selkowitz (whose vet clinic in New York links to this blog) informed me, when I sent him a copy to read to see if it was too whiny. He was right. I was thinking about a patient of mine who had just died before I could figure out what was wrong with her. I felt awful. Like I’d let the client down. I called the owners to offer what meager condolences I could offer, fully expecting to get yelled at for my failure.
The sweet client ended up consoling me. The dog died peacefully in her sleep. The owner said that the tests that I ran, the exam I did, and the normal results that I got gave them comfort that their dog was ok and not suffering. It was just her time.
A small ray of sunshine in an otherwise terribly sad situation.
It’s moments like that, that are some of the best things about being a vet.