End-of-life care: What I learned from a pet’s death

It has taken me almost two years to be able to write this. We said goodbye to our beloved dog in early May of 2013. I grieved for well over a year.

About a month-and-a-half prior to his death, we had a big medical scare with him. I wrote at that time about how dealing with a veterinary emergency can provide us with some insights and practice parallels to dealing with human medical crises. A veterinary crisis also has definite parallels to human end-of-life issues and can highlight ethical concerns as well.

He was an older dog — old enough that my husband and I would occasionally mention animals’ life expectancies in front of our kids. The boys were well aware of what we were doing: “Mom, Dad, we know dogs don’t live as long as people, and you’re obviously trying to prepare us, but it’s totally going to suck when it happens, whether or not you remind us of how long dogs live.”

So he was older, slowing down in general, with a seizure disorder which had developed in his later years and was generally kept in check with medications (with one episode of multiple breakthroughs a month or two earlier), but reasonably active and happy overall.

The big scare I mentioned above came on pretty suddenly. He became progressively ill over the course of a day, and I brought him to the vet, who did a thorough exam and extensive lab work. It didn’t look good — obstructive biliary disease — and we were referred to a veterinary specialist for an ultrasound, expecting that it would show cancer.

I filled the family in on the details of what was happening, and I took him in for the imaging study. The ultrasound did not show cancer, but elucidated an issue that would be rapidly fatal if not addressed with emergent surgery.

I called my husband. Our dog was old. We didn’t have spare thousands of dollars lying around. We loved our dog. Our children loved our dog.

We happen to live about an hour-and-a-half away from one of the best veterinary schools in the country. I called them and told them what was happening. They said that we could bring our dog out there, and their estimate on the surgical cost was a bit lower than our local place.

I called my husband back. We talked again. Yes, our dog was on in years, but this was fixable. He could have a couple good years left in him. We would figure out a way to cover the cost. I brought him to the boys so they could give him a hug, and then I took him out to the veterinary school’s emergency clinic.

I brought the ultrasound disk and the lab results with me. They looked at everything, concurred with the diagnosis, and agreed that surgery was a reasonable option. “The other vet did tell you that the mortality rate for this surgery is about 30 to 35 percent, right?” Uh, no. No, he didn’t. How could I not have asked that?

I wasn’t going to change plans now. The odds were still in his favor, even if not what I had assumed. I gave him a kiss, signed the release forms, and gave the front desk my credit card.

And it worked. The surgery, though complicated, went well. He recovered. Within a few weeks, he was prancing and bounding and chasing rabbits like he did when he was much younger. We were so happy — we knew we had made the right decision. We played joyfully with him over the next few weeks.

And then he started seizing. Not just one breakthrough, but multiple. I brought him in. The vet upped his anti-seizure medications. He lost bladder control with the seizures, so I slept in the kitchen with him for the next two nights. He had more seizures. And his post-ictal (post-seizure) agitation kept increasing. It got worse through the next evening. His vet said there was nothing more he could do, and he sent us to the emergency clinic, which had a veterinary neurologist on staff.

The vet who was on duty that night in the emergency/specialty clinic was very kind. She said that it didn’t look good, but we were not without hope. She assured me they would do what they could overnight, she would keep me posted, and I could come back in the morning to speak with the neurologist when he arrived.

So I headed back there the next morning. The neurologist said he recommended an MRI since his seizure history sounded consistent with a brain tumor. The MRI would cost two thousand dollars. And then if it did show a tumor, and if it looked operable, we would have to decide whether to pay for and put him through brain surgery to remove it. He also said he had one other thing to try with medications.

I talked to our regular vet (a very smart man who had always given us sound guidance and advice), and he said that our dog had been through so much, that the prognosis was grim, and that if it were his dog he would not do surgery or the MRI (which would require anesthesia). I talked to my husband. We decided to give the neurologist’s pharmaceutical idea a try.

It didn’t work. The updates from the veterinary hospital throughout the day were very bad. We knew what had to happen. We told the boys, and we took them with us to the hospital so we could all say goodbye. It was a sad, tear-filled car ride.

They brought our doggie into a room with us. It was awful. He was horribly agitated, and he had lost his sight. He really didn’t show much, if any, sign of recognizing us. After hugging and petting him as much as and as best we could and saying what we needed to say, I told my husband and boys to wait in the waiting room. My husband wouldn’t leave me. The boys (12, 15 and 17 at the time) said they’d be OK and went out of the room together.

And then it was time. The vet gave me euthanasia consent papers to sign. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I think I recall acknowledging the finality of the decision. And then it was really time. The vet asked if I wanted to stay. I said yes. I told my husband he didn’t have to stay, but he would not let me stay alone.

It was so very awful. So very, very awful. Our dog was clearly suffering. His agitation was severe — it had not been alleviated by any of the medications. I will skip the full play-by-play of the final actions, but I will describe a bit of what went through my mind.

“I have to be here. I have to stay here. Good pet owners stay until the end. I don’t want my husband to have to see this. I’m the doctor. I should be stronger than this. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Am I doing the wrong thing? What if this is fixable? How much did money play into this decision? What kind of a monster am I? How can I do this to my family? Did I make this decision to stop him from suffering or did I make it to prevent me from suffering as I watch him? How can I do this? How can I not do this? Oh God, it’s done. What have I done?”

I stayed as long as I could, with my hand on his fur. My husband’s hands were on me. Then I had to get up. I had to go to the door. I kept talking to our sweet puppy dog. The vet still had her stethoscope on him. He had stopped breathing minutes prior but probably still had a few slow heartbeats left, but I just couldn’t stay any longer. I failed him in those last few seconds. He wasn’t alone, but it was someone else’s hand on him at the very end. The vet had no choice — she had to stay.

They handed us the bill at the front desk. We gave them our credit card.

We gathered our boys, held one another, and had a silent, tearful car ride home.

We grieved. And we recovered. But it took me a long time to recover.

This was a dog. Yes, he was our dog, our pet, a “member of our family,” but he was a dog, not a person. Yes, we all tend to anthropomorphize our pets, but I was not grieving his loss as I would grieve a person. We develop strong emotional attachments to our pets, and they symbolize responsibility, loyalty, and innocence. That wasn’t all of it. It was more complicated. It was much worse than when I had grieved dogs in the past as a child and teenager (and those previous times certainly hadn’t been easy).

I’m a doctor. I keep coming back to this. A big part of why I went into medicine was to prevent death. To promote life. To promote good health. To help give quality to life. And, when not possible to do the aforementioned, and then to help support patients and their families through the loss of life. I have been with patients and their families numerous times at the very end of a life. It has been at times when my colleagues and I did everything we could to save a person but were not able. It has been at times when someone has chosen not to be resuscitated or to have “extraordinary measures” taken.

It has been at times when the choice was to focus only on easing any pain at the end of life. It has been when removing life support. Some of those times were peaceful, and some of those times were frantic. But never, during any of those instances, did I do (nor write an order for someone else to do) something with the express purpose of stopping a heart. Even when removing  someone from ventilator support, we were removing a breath-sustaining machine (and, therefore, a life-sustaining machine), but the person’s respiratory system had already failed on its own — we were not purposefully making a person who was spontaneously breathing stop that breathing.

Almost two years ago, I signed papers authorizing a veterinarian to kill my dog. We use the word “euthanize” (“eu” meaning “good,” “than” meaning death, translating to a word that means “to kill painlessly,” generally to relieve suffering), which sounds much better than “kill,” but it doesn’t change what is done. Our vet told us we had chosen compassionately.

In all reality, it probably would have been cruel to allow an animal to continue to suffer indefinitely with no understanding of what was happening, and it is not financially feasibly to put an animal on the comfort measures that we afford people at the end of life. But still, I signed the papers to stop his breathing. What if I was wrong? I did not handle well the thought that I had chosen to end his life and that I could have made the incorrect choice. When I failed him in those final seconds, it was because I had failed myself. I second-guessed my thought process. I questioned my motives. I felt unworthy of him.

Those feelings hung with me heavily. There was an intense, deep feeling of guilt. Honestly, my really wrong decision probably was to have had him go through that surgery when he was so ill that month-and-a-half prior. It would have been a peaceful death if we had opted out of that surgery. There was nothing about the way he ended up dying that was peaceful. If only we had known then what was going to happen six weeks later.

People lament how much money we spend on medical care in people’s last few months of life. Policy experts and politicians look at the numbers and say we are wasting money and resources. People lament how so many people end up dying hooked up to machines in hospitals when they would much rather have died peacefully at home. But the vast majority of the time I was working in a hospital, caring for people at the end of their lives, we had not known it would be the end. Surgeons did not usually advise surgery if they thought a patient was not going to live. We did not give people ventilator support with the expectation that they would not recover.

And most of our patients did survive and return home, and get to celebrate another holiday or wedding with their families, and see more sunsets, and sing more songs — how many sunsets, how many songs are worth the cost of that care? More than once, even when an outlook was grim, and we expected the worst, a person surprised us and recovered well beyond what we would have expected. And sometimes a person who we had expected to do well’s last moments were on a ventilator or with people pushing on her chest during CPR. We spend those resources and efforts at the end because we don’t know it’s the end.

We don’t know everything. And it’s really hard not to know everything. Especially when you’re the person who is supposed to have the answers.

Abigail Schildcrout is founder, Practical Medical Insights, and blogs at DocThoughts.

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