I euthanized two good friends this week. We will call them Maurice and Dotty. Maurice was an orange cat with a thick neck and a big heart. Dotty was a happy dog with lopsided ears and an easy smile. They were patients at Madison and I never saw them in their natural environments, but something about them touched my heart and I will always carry memories of them with me.
We are blessed to see many animals like Maurice and Dottie at Madison. Pets that are special. To their families, of course, but also to us. When you come into Madison and we gush all over your pet, that is not for show or because we have to. We do not have to. We love your pets. And we grieve when they die.
Everyone grieves differently and that holds true for veterinary staff too. There is debate among veterinarians about the best way to help people deal with the pain of having a pet die. There are books and articles written on the subject. Some veterinarians and staff members become very clinical and professional. Some will lead a prayer. Some with cry with you and some will save their tears for later. There is no one correct way to grieve. Everyone is different. Every family is different. Every animal is different.
Each day at Madison we have exciting and adorable moments. And many days we also have heartbreaking moments. We are all deeply affected by the animals that we treat. This can be emotionally exhausting, but it is one of the reasons that we choose to be in this field. We want to help. Even when it breaks our hearts.
Our families have seen us cry because we are with your families in grief. As coworkers we support each other and help each other work through our pain so that we can go back to work and help more families who need us.
There is a term often discussed in veterinary medicine, Compassion Fatigue, also called secondary traumatic stress. It affects people who work/live in care-taking rolls. Who give so much of themselves emotionally that over time they lose the ability to care for anyone, even themselves. Recently some students asked me how I avoid getting compassion fatigued. I told them that I don’t, that I am running full tilt right into it. I told them to find good therapists, to have a support network that will help them take care of their own emotional needs so they could be there for their patients and their own families at home. And to show up every day with an open heart. Ready to give of themselves and to receive love and pain in return. In this field there is no way to avoid some degree of compassion fatigue, our pets just don’t live long enough. If all goes according to plan, we will outlive all of our patients.
For me it helps to give the animals that I love a good death. To offer a yummy and previously forbidden last meal of candy or donuts. To do what I can to make their final moments comfortable, emotionally and physically. And to listen to and talk about the good times so those memories can live on.
Veterinary medicine deals with death so often. It is not my intent to make this blog a morbid place, but we cannot hide from death. I have found it helpful to remove death from that place of being taboo. To examine it and what it means to me and those that I love and care for. To plan for it. To remember the good times and shed some tears at the end.
Next time you see one of our team members with a tear in their eye give them an extra big smile and let them know that you appreciate their compassion. Madison has so many big-hearted, compassionate, and talented people who are working hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally to keep your family healthy and happy. I am extremely thankful that we all have each other for support during good times and bad. When Maurice and Dotty left this world they were not alone. They were surrounded by their family and their Madison family and they will be well remembered by many.
Note – The pictures of not of Maurice or Dotty.