Death, the good, bad and ugly…

An exhausted vet student

Death is one of those bad words, that we try to avoid talking about, that we ignore and hope we never have to face.

Yesterday I read a blog post called “The dirty secret about CPR in this Hospital (That Doctors Desperately Want You To Know)”. For me it was nothing new, however it made it easy to understand and got the point across in a way I never could so I would highly recommend checking it out.

Since reading this it has remained stuck in my mind throughout the day, I think being in the veterinary profession gives me the other side of the picture. Unfortunately I have been in the position of watching someone I loved die slowly in a hospital bed – it was never what I expected – I expected to turn up one day and find them in their garden or home after a heart attack. It took several days for the die under the Liverpool Pathway (since then I am much more clued up as to why this may not always be the right thing) however the alternative was open heart surgery with very very very small odds of a meaningful recoveryEven at that point in time, without realising I was thinking about the quality of life and not the quantity – the chance of them doing what they loved and leaving the hospital after this surgery was near zero. The quality of life would be zero, even though the quantity would be increased (if you can consider it as life).

Whenever this person had spoken about death to me I had tried to change the subject as I was scared to think about it. I was scared of losing them. I didn’t want to think about it.

So moving forward 5 years with a lot more education and experience I am writing this. Over the past two years I’ve been seeing practice I have been around death, caused death, and prevented death. Some days it seems to be all I deal with, last Tuesday by the last patient I’d seen so many patients die or euthanized that I was no longer surprised when I confirmed another death.

Let’s talk about some death – from the perspective of a vet student… These have all happened to me…

It is 1am, my phone goes, one word – “torsion” – and I am out of bed and running for the door, 10 minutes after this phone call I am scrubbing into surgery. A torsion (GDV or bloat where the stomach swells up with gas) is a surgical emergency. The dog will die without a vet and surgery. An hour or so later the dog is in recovery, and a few days later it goes home.

Last Tuesday at 6:45pm when I was walking out the door to go to lunch a call came in… “torsion”… the owners were on their way about 20 minutes out. That’s 20 minutes for me to prepare. Operating Theatre set up, preparation for stabilisation, emergency fluids, decompression. Car drives up to the door, owner says I think he’s dead… I’m in the back of the car listening to nothing, feeling no pulse, no breathing. This dog didn’t even make it in the doors.

Is a torsion painful? Yes. Can it be fixed with surgery? Sometimes. Will the dog have quality of life after surgery? Yes. Is it a painful way to die? I would not like to die like this.

I am in surgery, normally opening the abdomen is pretty routine, however this time we are struggling. If I hadn’t opened the scalpel blade myself I would have thought it was blunt and old. Opening the abdomen finally it is like all the organs have melted together… There is nothing there, and nothing that is possible, I am wondering how the dog was still alive. We were not sure what we were going find, however I would have never expected this… The owners chose never to allow this dog to wake up.

We’ve got what is expected to be a pyometra – however there is a large mass in the abdomen along with lots of fluid. The owners know that it may be bad – and are waiting by the phone. I am running anaesthesia, the patient is having some problems to breathe so I have placed them onto a ventilator to help them. The abdomen is opened and the right liver lobe the size of the dogs head is removed from the abdomen – the breathing becomes easier. There are changes to other organs as well – it is not a pyometra however there are tumours on the uterus. We call the owners, and they give permission to euthanise on the table. I administer the drugs that will end this life – and relieve the suffering.

In human medicine – these patients would be closed and taken to recovery – they would be given drugs for pain and potentially kept sedated until they die. There is no guarantee of when this would be, they’d be trapped there in a hospital bed hooked up to machines.

A horse – unable to stand, with fluid on its lungs, anemia. The condition is getting worse… There is no quality of life, and the chance of recovery is very slim. We make the decision to euthanise and administer the drugs to do so. The horse is peaceful, out of pain, and no longer drowning inside out.

In human medicine this patient would be treated – humans are lighter than horses, the anatomy is different, and the lungs are like bags of crisps instead of sacks of potatoes. Its treatable – and there is a chance of recovery to a quality of life.

I will end on a puppy, this puppy had a deformity in its leg that was surgically correctable – however it was not showable and not breeding material. I cuddled this puppy on my lap when it was sedated, and held it when it was given the final injection. Not to relieve its suffering, simply because it was unwanted. We tried to encourage the owners to sign it over to be rehomed, tried to talk about the surgical options. That is the danger of euthanasia – that it can be used for ends other than relieving suffering.

We may not be able to pick when, however you can choose how you want to die. Where you want to die. It’s a conversation that should be had, and you can even find online guides like the Five Wishes (https://agingwithdignity.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/product-samples/fwsample.pdf?sfvrsn=2 ) to help you.

One thought on “Death, the good, bad and ugly…

  1. I always read your blog but I found this post especially touching. I think having euthanasia as an option for pets is so important. Evolution hasn’t prepared animals to deal with illness and end-of-life suffering because in the wild they would simply be predated at that point; nor can we explain to them what is going on. I keep seeing images on Facebook of animals, sometimes severly disabled pets, who are “struggling on” or “trying so hard” and it so often seems unfair, especially prey animals which must often feel constant fear that they are immobilised and unable to escape predators. Obviously there are some happy stories there but I think everyone should understand that euthaniasia is the last kind thing they can do for a beloved pet.

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