Cloudy eyes of an old dog

I thought a lot about whether I should write this post or not. And now, having just gotten off a call with a grateful client, I figured I’d write this post after all.

It’s been a day of contrasts. My morning home visit was a revisit of a geriatric dog with severe hip pain, which is still undiagnosed. I set up the appointment time to visit the owner’s house, to which the owner agreed. However, when I reached their house at the scheduled time, I was greeted by the sight of the owner getting ready to leave for a trip. He didn’t have time to greet me or tell me his pet’s problem. He ran around from room to room, and kept asking me to hurry up because he had to leave. His rude behaviour and the poor dog’s condition left a bad taste in my mouth, and I decided that as much as I want to help my patient, I’m going to have to think twice before picking up his call the next time.

In the evening, however, I got a call from one of my other clients, another owner of a geriatric dog (a large chunk of my home visit patients are geriatric). I encountered this dog and owner in the beginning of my practice, and the dog is one of my favourite stories to recollect when my colleagues and I talk about the most difficult case we’d have had to handle. It’s bitten at least two out of five of his previous veterinarians. It refuses to let its owner pick it up and put it on the examination table. Every visit I’ve done lasts at least one and half hours, because it takes me 45 minutes just to wrestle with this dog and get it tired enough for me to restrain it.

So I picked up the call. The client wished me happy new year, and asked me why I haven’t come around to see her dog. I don’t visit unless a prior appointment is asked for. I honestly don’t do courtesy visits, unless they’re pets of family members or close friends, because I don’t want anyone to get any ideas. But listening to this owner (a grandmother of two girls) tell me that her dog is doing much better than it has ever been, and that I saved her dog from untimely demise, made me smile from ear to ear. Listening to her, understanding how grateful she was, and realising that she was willing to call me, to ask me to visit and see how much better her dog had become, reminded me how much I love my job, and how much I love what I do.

It reminded me of my first experience with how differently animal owners react. I was still a veterinary student, doing my rounds, and within the span of one hour, I had been accused by an owner of killing their animal, while another owner hugged me and cried, thanking me for taking care of their pet so well in its final days. After the second owners left, I went into an empty room, curled up into a ball, and cried. I cried, not because I was hurt or overjoyed by what the owners said, but because I was unable to save either animal, in spite of having given my 110% to both of my patients.

That’s when I realised that it doesn’t matter what anyone says, as long as you give you best into every case. As long as I am not lazy, and as long as I care, the gratitude and the brickbats don’t make a difference. But some days are better than others, and the worse days are those when I forget this simple fact.

Speaking of my geriatric patients, two of my geriatric patients passed away last week, a day apart from each other. One had a tumour in the liver big enough to fill its abdomen, and one had tumours throughout its body. One was euthanized, and another passed away on the table while receiving fluids. And both owners, no matter how devastated they were, made it a point to call me and tell me that they were grateful for everything that I did for them and their pet, and that we had done everything that we could to help their pet.

This reminded me of a conversation I had had with an pet owner, where they told me that the death of a pet is different for an owner and veterinarian. For an owner, it’s their pet, the only animal that they’ve known, that’s dying. For me, as a vet, since I’ve seen so much death, it shouldn’t hurt as much.

I can’t speak for anyone else, so I will speak for myself. Every death hurts, just as deeply as the last one. As a vet, I’ve become good at postponing the pain, but that’s as far as it goes. I can’t allow myself to lose control over my emotions while I comfort an owner who has lost their pet, but, at the end of the day, or when I have a break and find myself alone, I allow myself to fully mourn the death of a being I devoted myself to serve and help save.

You can’t save everyone. I can’t save everyone. That is something that took me a really, really, really long time to understand. And longer to accept.

I learnt that there comes a point when one must call it quits, close the file, look the owner in the eyes and tell them what they need to be told. Respectfully, gently and firmly. It’s not what they want to hear. It’s definitely not easy – telling them, or watching them as they process the news. As work goes, this is the hardest part of the profession for me.

After the passing of my geriatric patients a few days ago, I wanted to send a message to all of my clients, to tell them to get their pets checked annually as they approach old age, and to not skip annual checkups. It makes a huge difference when you’re able to pick up the signs before they manifest, because animals, unlike humans, do not show pain or discomfort until after they have significantly crossed their breaking point.

I’m still wondering how to put together the message. Hopefully, I get the right words soon, before life sweeps me away, and this episode becomes another page in my professional life.

If you’re reading this and have a pet at home, give them a cuddle, and a pat on the head for me. Because, just as they brighten up your life, being able to help them lights up mine.

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