This is not fiction.
How it works:
We make sure the curtains are closed, tissues available for the family and a clean blanket for the patient to lie down on. Sometimes the patient prefers to sit. It doesn’t really matter. The family are sad, sometimes crying. The patient is usually just ready to go. We each have our traditional last-minute questions, us asking are you sure you want to go through with this, do you want to watch, them asking will it hurt. (No, it won’t.) And then
I hold the patient, wrapped firmly around his body, holding one limb out. Hand goes around the elbow and twists, thumb pressing down on the vein. Holding off the vein while the doctor inserts the needle. Draws a little blood to make sure we’re in the vein. Blood swirls like octopus ink into the pink liquid. We’re ready. I let up on the vein and the doctor slowly depresses the plunger. The patient kicks a little while death runs up through his vein.
The doctor pulls the needle out, and I put my thumb over the puncture. A few seconds later the patient goes limp, and I ease him to the floor, still holding. Once in a great while, adrenaline overpowers the sedative, and the patient thrashes for a few seconds before letting go. Usually, it’s over in seconds. The last breath comes out in a quiet sigh, and the eyes glaze. If you look at the eyes you can see, if you want to, the exact second when whatever force animated the patient leaves the room. It’s a mystical and terrible moment that I no longer care to see.
I lay the head down, wait for the doctor to confirm that the heart has stopped, arrange the body discreetly so it doesn’t look like an HBC, pull part of the blanket over the body. Then I leave quietly. We let the family stay in the room as long as they want to. I have a plastic bag ready, but they don’t need to see it.
Sometimes they stay in the room for close to an hour, saying goodbye. Most people only take ten or fifteen minutes. There is almost always crying. Sometimes there isn’t. The people that don’t cry scare me.
When they leave, I come in with the bag and carry the body to the freezer. You want to get the body packaged before the sphincter loosens. The body is so floppy it seems boneless, and can be hard to carry. It always amazes me how much of our bodies’ rigidity is actually due to our muscles.
We log the drugs used, lock up the bottle, and clean the room. Another day done.
The statistic quoted in the industry is that veterinarians see five times as much patient death as human doctors. I tend to doubt the neatness of that figure (are they talking about oncologists or pediatricians?) But I can tell you we do this several times in an average week. This is a significant factor in what they call “compassion fatigue”, which can wreck veterinary personnel. You see a lot of people burn out from this fatigue. They develop all kinds of problems. There’s one in most vets’ offices. A lot of it has to do with the fact that so much of the death we see is totally preventable.
Miss Kitty’s Near Death Experience:
The owners are not clients of ours. Normally we don’t do walk-in euthanasias, for reasons which will soon be made clear. Normally we require that they come in for an examination. For some reason our office manager decided we would take this one. The cat, they say, is fifteen years old. Vomiting nonstop. Scratches everyone. Won’t eat. No shelter will take her because of her age, no friend will adopt her because of the vomiting. They’re at wits’ end.
We shouldn’t take it, but we do. The owners drop off the cat. An hour later, the doctor and I are in the room. Since this is supposedly a “caution cat”, I’ve got the gloves, but I hate the gloves because you can’t get a good grip with them. So I reach into the carrier gently, whispering to Miss Kitty. Touch her gently, pet her. Pull her out of the carrier. She hisses, but she comes. I weigh her and put her back on the table, doing the “careful snuggle”. Miss Kitty is doing fine.
The doctor looks at her. “This cat is fifteen?” He looks at the teeth, brushes the coat. Her teeth are atrocious, but her coat is healthy, she’s outdoor-cat-dirty but grooming herself, her weight is good, her eyes are bright.
He looks at me. “Did she try to bite you?” I shake my head, knowing already that we and Miss Kitty have been screwed. This is exactly why we don’t take walk-in euthanasias.
“I’m not doing this.”
We put the needle away and take her temperature. She has a mild fever. The doctor examines her a little more, gives her something for the fever. Then I brush her out and put her in a cage in the back room. On lunch break, we take her down to the hospital and remove the teeth that are beyond salvation. We put her on an IV drip overnight.
A day passes, and another, and Miss Kitty hasn’t vomited once or made any attempt to bite or scratch me. She’s eating and drinking normally. Bowel movements and urination are normal. We check for FELV and FIV. Negative. We run bloodwork. Normal. Miss Kitty is a perfectly good cat.
We are looking for a home for her now. She will live. She’ll be just fine.
The owners, meanwhile, have been on the phone with us every single day. They don’t understand it. She was terrible. She couldn’t hold down a bite. She bit everyone. When they have the nerve to tell us they don’t want her living in a cage, our entire staff totally loses it. The next time they call, we tell them we found a home for her. Really, it’s only a matter of days before one of our cat rescue ladies will take Miss Kitty.
Some people care.