I recently lost my first patient. A strange statement for someone who has been practicing medicine for almost 30 years. For the sake of clarity, I have lost patients before while working in the practices of other veterinarians. This was the first patient I have lost from my own practice.
Be it in a daytime practice or an emergency/supportive care facility, veterinarians experience life and death situations on a daily basis. The patients you treat in those settings are by chance. In this case, I was selected by the owner to treat her pet after having experiences with other care providers that for whatever reasons did not meet their needs. Having been diagnosed with a terminal condition, my task was to keep the pet as comfortable as possible during her final days. Part of my duties was also to support the owner as she came to some degree of acceptance towards her pet’s decline and death. The owner was a very kind, intelligent, and considerate person, but had challenges in keeping the situation in perspective. Long term loving relationships can result in such challenges. Our first contact was a phone message composed of emotional statements and sobs. Thank goodness for caller ID. I returned her call and we discussed her desire to do the best she could for her pet and keep her at home for her final days. Our discussions resulted in an appointment to develop a treatment and action plan.
We meet as scheduled. My new client was accompanied by one of her best friends and a veritable menagerie of pets. My new patient was an older dog who had a condition that made it difficult for her to eat and drink. She was not in the best of health but maintained her….”spunk”…to be kind. In actuality, that was a very good thing. We are all familiar with situations in which having a fighting spirit is attributed to helping extend life. It is no different with pets. Our plan was developed and instituted and we achieved initial success. My patient was eating and acting more like herself than in a very long time. Things were going well. Frequent phone calls and visits kept the plan going along with adjustments as my patient’s condition warranted. Things were good until they were not.
One evening as I was driving to a meeting, I received a call. My patient’s condition had taken a turn for the worse. I instructed my client to meet me at an emergency clinic as I made a U-turn and headed towards the clinic. I arrived at the facility and had the opportunity to consult with the doctor on duty about my incoming patient. They arrived and I carried my patient into the facility. She was hospitalized a night and a day prior to being released to return home. Discussions were had and conclusions were reached. We had done our best and decided it was time. My patient’s final day was one of being loved and pampered at home.
I arrived at my client’s home that evening to perform the procedure to end my patient’s suffering. It was sad, but respectful. My patient showed her “spunk” to the end. Conversation and hugs got us all through the moments.
As I departed my heart was heavy with sadness, but I also had a feeling of satisfaction. I had provided not just the services they needed, but the services they deserved. I became more emotionally invested in this case than any in my career. Usually the rule is to keep emotions at arm’s length. Sharing the pain and experiences of my patient and client was inevitable. During the weeks of treatment, my client became my friend.
I truly feel I am a better veterinarian and a person as a result of the experience.
Dr. Pierre Bland is the owner of Dr. Bland’s Vet House Calls. He can be reached at 954-673-8579 or at doctorblandvet.com.