Finding the sunshine in euthanasia
The story of the life of a dog named Chance-and the special way we said goodbye-reminded me how beautiful the euthanasia experience can be.
Euthanasia happens every day. Some of us may learn to cope by slipping into autopilot, making jokes behind closed doors or turning the other way. We've become so used to this process that we may forget how beautiful and special it can be. It's important to remember that no matter how systematic this event becomes for us as veterinary employees, the journey itself is different for every client—and also for their pets.
It took a very special dog to make me realize that things don't always need to go as planned. And stepping outside the exam room can be an unexpected and therapeutic passage.
A chance encounter
I used to know a dog named Chance. He was a small black Labrador with the sweetest brown eyes I'd ever seen. I petted him incessantly—even though he smelled like a flea collar—because of his warm and loving spirit.
His owner Sheri found him by accident. He'd been abandoned by his previous owners, who moved away and left him in the yard. It's no wonder he loved staring into the eyes of the people who really cared about him. He was lucky enough to find Sheri, who took him in and did her best to give him love and soothe him during the thunderstorms he hated with a passion.
When Chance first came into our clinic, we all fell in love. We gave him a full exam and were saddened to discover he was heartworm positive.
"I knew it was bad luck for her to name him Chance," I said to my coworkers. But Chance ended up being the perfect name. The next year of his life proved to be full of second chances.
A second-chance life
Heartworm treatments went well, and Chance took them like a champ. The day he finally tested negative, we all cheered.
Life was good after that, but it was only temporary. Within a year he developed a painful tumor in his neck. There was nothing we could do besides make him comfortable.
He powered through for quite some time. I ran into him and Sheri at the dog park once. In spite of his pain, he was in the thick of it—wrestling with newfound canine friends and jumping around with the sun glistening off his shiny fur and his tongue wagging halfway to the ground.
Sheri called the office every few days. Several times she confessed she just didn't know what to do. One day she felt it was time to euthanize, and the next day Chance would be happily running around outside. It was difficult for her to come to terms with euthanasia when he was having so many wonderful moments outdoors.
When the day finally came, she called the clinic for the last time and I was faced with a question I didn't know how to answer.
"Do you think we could do the euthanasia outside? Chance is so happy when he's outside. I don't think I could bear his last moments being on a cold table."
Immediately, worst-case scenarios started running through my head. It sounded like an awful idea. What if he wouldn't lie down? What if he started chasing squirrels or running away from us? How horrible would it be for Sheri if we couldn't control him? But how could I say no to such a question? I had no idea what to do. I told Sheri I would ask our veterinarian and call her back with an answer.
I was surprised when the doctor said she thought it would work out fine. I called Sheri to let her know that we could make it work. We scheduled an appointment for the end of the day, and she thanked us for accommodating her.
A chance for goodbye
Late that afternoon Sheri and Chance arrived. Chance looked miserable—nothing like the tail-wagging pup I'd seen at the park. Despite his pain, he greeted me with those beautiful brown eyes. But this time they held a new glint of understanding.
Our doctor had set up an area for him in the yard behind our clinic. We have a tall privacy fence for boarding dogs and plenty of space for them to run around. She placed a blanket on the grass near the back corner of the fence and had everything she needed ready to go. Sheri and her sister brought Chance into the yard, and I wondered where things were heading. I was nervous he would start sniffing around or looking for trouble—after all, he was outside now, and that's what dogs do. To my surprise, he walked straight over to the blanket and laid down. I wanted to look at the others and see if they were as amazed as I was, but I couldn't take my eyes off him. He looked up at the sun and soaked it in like any dog would on a beautiful spring day.
We gathered around him, kneeling in the grass, and began the process. He never even looked at the needle. He just gazed at the sky until he went to sleep. It was the most beautiful euthanasia I have ever been a part of, and I feel privileged to have been there. Sheri and her sister were so grateful for the serenity we provided them for their experience. And I know Chance was too.
Chance made me realize that there's not always a right and wrong way to do things. Most important, he showed me that when life gives us a chance we should take it. And when it's time for us to leave, if we're lucky, we can have our moment in the sun and go out the way we want to.
Cori Weber has worked as a receptionist and veterinary assistant in Kansas City and lives in Olathe, Kan. Please send your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.