When I was a student, I thought the hardest part of being a veterinarian would be making the right diagnostic and treatment choices. I thought it was all about getting the correct answer, the enigmatic “diagnosis.” Little did I know, that medicine would not be as black-and-white as we idealistically hoped for as students. Actually what I’ve come to discover in 15 years of practice, is that finding the answers can sometimes be the easiest part. The hardest part and the part you never get used to is relaying bad news, especially telling somebody that you can’t “fix” their friend. Informing them that their beloved companion is in organ failure or has cancer is very difficult, but it turns out that the hardest part of my job may also be the most important. You might think that your first puppy or kitten appointment will be the most important visit in your pet’s life, or maybe the first time you bring in a sick pet and go home with a healthy one. But what you will all come to discover, sadly, is that the most important visit is often your last visit.
We learned about end-of-life decisions in school. We performed humane euthanasia in-clinic, and we learned when to advocate for this for a patient. What they don’t teach you is how to look your clients in the eye and help them make this most difficult decision. They don’t teach you how to still be their guiding force and the person in charge when your heart is breaking, right along with your client’s. You don’t learn the slightest touch or the supportive phrase that provides strength and encouragement. No one teaches you how to bring up the fond memories in the middle of the sadness, so that pet parents have a moment of laughter in their tears – that comes with experience, it is not supposed to be easy. I am often so disheartened to hear someone say that veterinarians choose to “give up” on their patients. I like to think that maybe we have an advantage over our colleagues in human medicine, in knowing it is okay to say no, to focus on quality versus quantity. That there is dignity and valour in knowing when enough is enough.
I will tell you that we as veterinarians feel these losses along with you. And I promise you that it will never get easy, nor should it ever. But I also make you a vow that when the time comes, when you need my help to make this decision and to send your beloved companion over the rainbow bridge, that I will be there with all that I have come to learn both in school and in life. And I will help you through the most important visit of your pet’s life. I will share your tears, your laughter; you’re reminiscing. I will send them along without pain or fear and with all the dignity that they deserve for the years of love and devotion they’ve given us.
Written by Paige Marryatt, DVM