by: Dr. Tibor Toman
“This must be the hardest part of your job” – a pair of tearful eyes looked at me while I was quietly collecting my syringes and a few other items from the floor where we were sitting, next to the dog whose body now lied motionless and calm.
Yes, it is. Undoubtedly. And I feel it is becoming harder and harder, year after year.
Quite a while ago, when I started in this field, fresh from school, looking at all the challenges ahead of me with excitement and enthusiasm, passionately learning to decipher complex problems and figuring out how to fix them and help the ailed bodies of animals to recover and rise, I honestly never thought how deeply the emotional aspect of all of it can get me. Of course – as you would assume – I loved animals from my youngest age, and yes, it was heartbreaking for me to witness if they suffered. Losing my own pet felt, understandably, like losing someone really, really close, and I always felt a certain dose of guilt – as I was the one responsible for them and in a way failed to protect them from harm… But then, as I started my journey in the field of medicine, and my view of illness (and health), the way I looked at an animal, a living organism, substantially changed. The empowerment of understanding how their bodies work and how I can help them to stay healthy and to heal from illness somehow became bigger than just “plain love”… Naturally, I continued enjoying each and every of them, it became a delight to greet and get to know all the pets that walked through our clinic doors.
Then, I learned that to every dog or cat there is a family attached. Sometimes a couple. Sometimes a lonely person. Children. Elderly. And unmeasurable love. I discovered people “at the other end of the leash”, and realized that they deserved all my attention and time, because they were all fabulous human beings, and they all shared at least one thing: they loved and cared for that little critter that was sitting on the exam table in front of us. Suddenly, everything changed for me, again. The scope of my attention widened: it wasn’t only the animal, my patient. There were the people, too – their family, who became equally important. Now I was focusing on both, and understanding, listening to, educating, guiding my clients became the integral part of what I was doing day after day. I realized that the emotional aspect of the animal – human relationship became so important to me, that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t that obvious from the the first day.
One defining aspect of this animal – human relationship is the unfair disproportion between the life span of the species. When we commit to pet ownership, when we bring home that puppy from the breeder, or the cat from the shelter, we also sign our promise that we will be there for them to the last day, and the acknowledgement that we are prepared to expose ourselves to immense sadness when they’re gone from our lives. I always tell this to my clients, in my attempt to console them and give them courage to cope with the loss. I tell them that this is their ultimate gift and sacrifice, when they make that incredibly difficult decision to end the life of their terminally ill pet.
Yet, these words sometimes sound impotent, they are insufficient to confront the sorrow and void that is left behind the beloved pet, the family member. Last week, in matter of three days, we had an incredible series of six deaths at Prince Edward Animal Clinic. Six lovely creatures, beloved pets, family members left one after another – some of them older and fading away, but most of them too young, and too soon. Serena, Matilda, Reggie, Mitzie, Minou, Mali. In our profession, we know that these sad events occur randomly, sometimes in statistically bizarre clusters. It is never easy, but to go through so many deaths in such short time, it was incredibly difficult to all of us at the clinic. We get so attached to our patients, as if they were our own pets. And the pain the families feel is also our own. Our hearts go out to all you lovely people.
Yes, this is definitely, by far the most difficult part of our job. It comes with the territory, as they say, but we would prefer to stay away from that part of the territory for a while, if possible.