Life as a Veterinarian, Motherhood, Pet Care

Death Comes, Grief Follows

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As a veterinarian, I help clients say goodbye to beloved pets nearly every day. There are those geriatric pets whose age or disease has finally got the best of them. I say things like “They enjoyed a wonderful and long life.” “When we open our hearts to know their love, so do we open our hearts to the heartache of their departure” “It is our final gift to give to relieve their suffering.”

Then there are the tragic unexpected losses where you just try to hold them up while emotions of disbelief, guilt, rage, anger, among others wash over them. Perhaps they want comfort to know their pet went quickly and without pain. You assure them it isn’t fair, that it was chance or poor luck.

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I have been awash in loss this past year. Expected loss of dogs from cancer and heart failure to the sudden losses due to tragedy or an undiscovered disease. I don’t know if one is better or worse than the other. With the terminal pets I felt waves of anticipatory grief. As much as I held on to the idea of “enjoying every day given” where there was joy in that day there was fear that this day was the end, that I didn’t know that moment would come and couldn’t control the end. Here I sat a veterinarian and I couldn’t save my own.

With each client I felt the need to take away the pain of grief and put in on my own back to bear so as to reliever their own suffering. I put myself in their shoes and felt my own losses, either those that had happened or those yet to come. I couldn’t go on in that way as a veterinarian helping. Instead I started thinking of grief as blanket and it was my job to hold a space for them, to wrap a blanket of understanding and support around them. I could share the grief but I could not shoulder it.  My quote of choice became: “Grief is the final act of love we have to give to those we have loved. Where there is great grief there as great love.” And then loss hit again today….and a wave of anger and grief once washed over me knocking me over.

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Maxx was a miracle, a PITA butthead, bully, and I loved to hate him. He would even spend time on kitty Prozac for his inappropriate marking behavior.

It was a typical afternoon at the clinic, when an older gentleman brought in an overly friendly overweight tabby cat with a thick red collar. Just 20 minutes after his exam and vaccines that tabby showed up at our strip-mall veterinary clinic doorstep in respiratory distress and vomiting blood. His owner couldn’t be found and we feared the worse. We couldn’t wait any longer and so radiographs revealed the problem- he had a diaphragmatic hernia…basically his diaphragm had torn and his abdominal contents including stomach and liver were in his chest threatening his life.

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The owner was located and couldn’t commit to the necessary surgery to save his life. Maxx had jumped out the car window on their departure. He could have ran under a car or to another business location but he seemed to beg for help by coming back to our doorstep. Maxx seemed a survivor and was owed the chance to prove it. I had him signed over and swore to do the best I could.

His breathing during surgery was provided by manual ventilation by a technician. Each breath provided by the careful squeezing of the reservoir bag, passing oxygen and anesthetic gases thru the tube in his trachea to inflate his lungs.  The diaphragm tear was found and I saw his beating heart and removed what didn’t belong in his chest. I sutured his thin torn diaphragm back together. And he survived…and recovered…and I couldn’t let him go so he became mine.

Maxx was really the worst…overly loving but on his terms, a food loving fatty I feared would become diabetic, a bully to the outdoor cats, and destroyer of my belonging with his potent urination. But I loved him.

So when he was gone for more than a day I feared the worse. Brad searched and found him…and since I had been texting for updates I got the call…and all the grief came back. I couldn’t handle another loss…just weeks after our beloved dog and months after other pets. I was pissed…I have clients that bring their cats in once a lifetime at the age of 18. I did everything for this cat. I saved his life…he beat the odds so why the hell now!

Nature is a cruel bitch! As I see the pastures come alive I know she brings life and beauty and she takes it away in one moment. Maxx had been attacked and the evidence suggested by a coyote. His wounds not survivable. I was fearful I won’t be able to find the answers I always need but when I saw him it wasn’t him…he was gone and this worthless body left behind.

And I said all the things I share to others…”You saved him. He had a great life. He loved the outdoors (He was strictly indoors initially but seemed to hate it and needed more. His first adventure outdoors I swept him up from under a bush after spending the entire 10 minutes he was outdoors convince he was acquiring feline leukemia virus). I don’t understand nature…I have the training to diagnosis, prescribe, and treat but in the end nature wins…she always does…whether it be when it seems right after a long full life or in tragedy we can’t understand.

I hold gratitude I have my family, children, and loved ones…that perhaps “He was just a cat. That she was just a dog.”. But my heart hurts and so once again death comes and grief follows.

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