Posted by: yogavet | March 6, 2010

the hardest part of my job

As my sister reminded me today, I am one of the few lucky people that actually has their dream job. Minor fantasies of singing on Broadway not withstanding. I am aware of this, and I try not to diminish that fact when my job gets hard. Being a horse vet, especially one at the beginning of her career, means long hours, demanding conditions, and patients who are occasionally bent on *not* being treated. (I currently have a bruised face to proof that last one…) I consider myself a pretty hard worker (workaholic, perhaps?), and I don’t shy away from the difficulties of this job.

The hardest part isn’t about any of that. The hardest part about this job is the look in someone’s eyes when they ask you to end the life of their companion for the past 30 years. It’s the little girls crying over their favorite pony with a surgical problem for which there is no money to fix. It’s knowing that you have the tools and the knowledge to save a life, and not having the permission to do so. Or, the opposite.

In a little over a year and a half since graduation, I have been on the plunger end of too many euthanasias to count. They’re all hard. In some cases, the road leading up to this decision was a long one, and there is relief in finally ending suffering. Sometimes I know the horse very well, in many other cases this is my first meeting with horse and owner. I still don’t know which is easier.

Yesterday I went on a recheck appointment to a bad hoof abscess I had seen a few days prior. This horse was owned by an elderly couple. They also had another horse with bad arthritis, who had been treated several times this winter for being unable to rise, and colicking. They asked me while I was out to their farm on Monday what else they could be doing for him. I recommended a daily NSAID that would be gentler on his system than the bute they had tried in the past. The mare with an abscess was difficult to handle. I had to sedate her to fully examine and radiograph her foot. I identified an area of bone loss in her coffin bone. I applied a poultice wrap and a rubber boot to protect the foot, and left instructions to change the boot every few days. It would take several weeks for this to heal, if it did.

While we talked on Monday, the wife asked me if I thought it would be okay to put both the horses down at the same time, if one of them needed to go soon. They were very attached to each other, and she didn’t think one would do well without the other. I told her that we could sedate the remaining horse, and see how that horse handled being alone over the following few days. There were other options, such as a rescue league, and we could try finding that horse a home. She was pessimistic, saying that they had never been trailered, had not been off the property, and had never been alone. She thought it would be fairer to put them both down at the same time. I told her that if she thought that was best, we could do that for her, and we could talk about it more when we needed to.

I could tell when I came back yesterday that all was not well. The owners looked upset, but they didn’t say anything right away. I started to work on the mare’s foot. She seemed a little more comfortable, but I still hadn’t been able to get sufficient drainage. If anything, she was worse about dealing with her foot. I started to recommend a change in treatment, but before I could get much out, they asked me if I could put both of their horses down, today.

I should have seen it coming, but it took me totally by surprise. I kept digging at the hoof. I finally stood and told her that yes, we could do that for her today. If there’s one thing I have learned in my short time at this, it’s not to question this decision too much. By this time, the owners have agonized over this decision, changed their minds a hundred times, and finally got up the courage to verbalize the request. In this case, the owners could not physically keep up with the demands of treating their horses. Both horses had chronic issues. The mare might have gotten better eventually, but at the risk of injuring her owners severely. I couldn’t question these motives. This was the right decision for these owners. It didn’t make what I had to do any easier.

They were too upset to call for a backhoe, so I did that for them. They were too upset to go back in the barn and say goodbye. Hugs were exchanged (hugs, at least, are free, and I don’t mind giving them out). They retreated to their house, and I would call them when it was over. I sedated both the horses, to limit the stress they would feel at being separated even for this short, one last time.

These were the hardest euthanasias I have been asked to perform. I was reminded of a passage from an article written by Dr. Christy Corp-Minamiji, and published on the back page of The Horse magazine, “Under The Blue Tarps”:

So many people ask the same question, regardless of the circumstances of the euthanasia. “Do you think this is the right thing to do?”

I know the answer. There is only one answer to this question. I don’t care what the circumstances are; by the time this question is asked, I have done everything within my power for my patient. At this point, my duty is to my client. “Yes, you are making a good choice for him.” The choice is always right. By this point, the alternatives are worse.

“How can you stand to do this?” More tears have accompanied this question than I care to remember. My answer never changes. “This is both the worst and the best thing that I do. Every one gets to me. Every one hurts. The day that it doesn’t hurt anymore will be the day that I have to find a different job.” Privately, I wonder when that day will come. Every time that plunger depresses, I feel a bit of my soul slide into the vein with that blue syrup. How many times until there is nothing left?

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