Bubba's battle: Life lessons learned from a beagle
One veterinarians story of a dog who reached a place few of her patients are allowed to goher heartand the lessons the experience taught her.
I cried at work today.
That statement carries a lot of weight for me. Crying at work isn't something I indulge in often. When it comes to patients, I've learned not to lean in emotionally. I've trained myself to preserve a minimal amount of disconnect to protect my own mental wellbeing. Most days, it's the only way I can survive this profession.
My emotional shield may have unraveled in a single day, but the process took place over the course of a week. It started with an emergency call on the afternoon of July 4. That's when Bubba the beagle entered my world and started picking apart my very meticulously manufactured armor.
Bubba had been attacked by another dog and, by all rights, had no business being alive. It was obvious by his wounds that the other dog had every intention of killing him. Bubba shouldn't have been breathing, but here he was, lying on my exam table, with a distraught owner draped over his broken and bleeding body.
After my initial assessment, I was concerned that Bubba didn't seem to have much function in his front limbs. Being that a majority of his wounds were around his neck and head, I questioned some sort of spinal trauma. However, the radiographs were normal, showing no obvious fractures or dislocations. Damn.
I'd be lying if I said a considerable part of me wasn't hoping to find something major on those images. The little dog that was lying so calmly in front of me was going to have such a long and painful fight ahead of him. Finding something definitively “unfixable” makes the decision to let go much easier for the owner. In that scenario, euthanasia is a simple choice and clients attain closure so much sooner. However, absolutely nothing about Bubba was simple.
My medical brain told me this dog had only a tiny chance of surviving with what I could offer. I couldn't send him to a referral center because the owner was barely going to have the money for my workup. Yet he hung on to Bubba so tightly and begged me to try. “I have to do something,” he repeated between sobs. So, I spent the next several hours working on Bubba, clipping wounds, scrubbing, suturing, placing drains, checking fluid rates, monitoring vitals, and on and on. Everything took twice as long because I was alone. It was a holiday and I didn't feel right asking a tech to come in and assist. It was just me and Bubba.
I wish I could say I was feeling heroic and altruistic, but the truth is I wasn't. I was resentful. I was called away from my family and friends. I was working on a creature that would likely die in the next few hours, and there was a good chance I wasn't going to get paid. It's safe to say I wasn't having a James Herriot moment.
The good fight
I patched up Bubba as well as I could and said a little prayer. I prepared the owner for the fact that his pet may not make it through the night. I assumed I'd find a dead dog waiting for me in the morning.
But Bubba refused to die. The next morning he was stable and stayed that way for 36 hours. Then his bloodwork changed and indicated he was getting ready to crash. That's when I did what every modern, well-educated veterinarian does and consulted my network of colleagues online. I put Bubba's case on a Facebook group filled with 11,000 brilliant vets. Within seconds, I had comment after comment of tips and things to try. I had specialists giving suggestions and support. Maybe Bubba had a chance after all…
I was consumed with his case for days. Throughout the weekend I was physically with my family, but I was mentally somewhere else. My outspoken children commented several times about how I was leaving them, once again, to go check on “that dog.” I was completely torn between being a good vet and a good mom, and I was failing at both simultaneously.
As the days went on, I placed irrational symbolism on Bubba's survival. If I was going to be sacrificing myself as a wife and mother, I reasoned, then the stupid dog better darn well live! From an emotional standpoint, I allowed him the chance to prove me wrong, and that alone let me become invested. Every time I wrote Bubba off, he'd bounce back. One tiny bit at a time he kept defying the odds.
Within a few days, Bubba was strong enough to go home and continue his wound healing there. I knew he still had a long road but, systemically, he was through the worst of it. I was reluctantly elated when he walked out of the building. Maybe we were actually going to win this thing! Maybe the time away from my family would be all worth it in the end.
Six days later, Bubba came back for a recheck. I had already made a plan for bandaging and wound care. What I wasn't prepared to see was his entire left ear sloughing from his head. It was obvious that no part of the external ear was viable. It was going to come off, and due to the massive tissue trauma surrounding the rest of his head, it was very unlikely that any sort of cosmetic or functional closure would be possible without thousands of dollars of specialized care. Care that I couldn't offer.
Bubba's owner had been waiting out in his truck while I did my “quick” recheck exam. I walked out to him and when he saw my face, he knew immediately that Bubba was in trouble-again. I had to explain it a few different times because, understandably, it wasn't an easy concept to visualize. As he sat with a cigar box full of 1980s baseball cards on his lap (which I assumed he was planning to sell to subsidize Bubba's care), I had to put into words what we were now asking of this small dog. Bubba needed surgery that I had zero experience with and little confidence that I could undertake successfully. He would need to undergo multiple procedures, some of which could be painful, over the course of several weeks and, in the end, likely wouldn't work. There was no good option.
I walked away and gave the owner time to take it all in. I couldn't make this decision for him. I went inside and waited. Just like when I came out to the truck and he knew my news wasn't good, as soon as I saw him standing at the reception desk I knew what choice he had made. He tried to articulate it, but it came out in sobs. I nodded. And I cried, too. We couldn't keep asking the impossible of Bubba.
A peaceful hell
We sat outside at a picnic table intended for employee use because we agreed that Bubba needed to be in the sunshine. He was happiest outside. Three of us sat around him-my tech (who also had spent many hours on his care), myself and his heartbroken owner. It was a peaceful hell.
This may sound strange, but I'm usually good at euthanasia. I've disciplined myself to be the model of caring and composure. I've recognized that owners who are in this heart-wrenching situation need quiet strength. They need reassurance that this is the last gift they can provide their pet.
It was a struggle to be “good” at Bubba's passing. The weight of my career seemed to fall on this one dog. My choices as a parent and spouse were somehow tangled up in his survival. I felt every bit of grief giving up on a dog who never gave up on himself. However, I respected Bubba enough to not experiment on him with my surgical abilities. I respected my client's budget enough to not keep spending money he didn't have. It was a crappy decision, but it was the right decision.
I've had many emotionally charged cases throughout my career. There's no rational reason for this one to be affecting me so deeply. I suspect that it has more to do with how it pulled me from my family on so many occasions and yet I still wasn't able to be anyone's hero. I feel the disappointment coming from all sides. I couldn't give anybody the win.
I don't believe anything happens without a reason, so I suppose Bubba came into my life for a specific purpose. Perhaps I've been overdue on personal reflection and evaluating my priorities. Maybe I'm closer to the edge of burnout than I realize.
I may not be entirely certain what my ultimate path is yet, but I do appreciate that Bubba has led me to something potentially bigger than myself. All of us in this profession have had a Bubba, but many haven't been able to process the emotional toll it creates. Not everyone can find the words for their discontent. Maybe a story about my experience with a battered beagle will be a voice for others. Maybe it's time we forgive ourselves for crying at work.
Dr. Detweiler is an associate veterinarian at Bern-Sabetha Veterinary Clinic in Sebetha, Kansas. In her free time, she enjoys reading, being out in the yard during the warm months, running, fishing, following K-State sports and, above all, spending time with her husband, children and their Rottweiler mix, Lucy.