Monday, December 27, 2010

The Giver and the Taker

I'm home on break now, after an exhausting but productive and swift semester. Finally, a moment to gather my thoughts. Time to slip from strenuous student to the profound lethargy of apathy and laziness. I'm not particularly motivated to do much of anything but sit around, complain about the cold weather, and stuff my face with leftover Christmas goodies. Which is why, for the sake of intellectual and spiritual development, it's a good thing I've found a new job to whip me into shape.

I'm at another vet clinic for a very short winter stint, working as an impromptu veterinary assistant at a hospital which specializes in avian and exotic pet medicine, in addition to the standard canine and feline treatment. It's a good gig—except for the commute and 8 a.m. starting time—and I've already learned a bunch about birds. Parrots and their kin are amazing animals; an untapped world of intelligence. And tricky as hell to treat.

But I've witnessed something else at the clinic in the past week, something that I've experienced before but never from this perspective: Euthanasia.

I know of no other position where a professional is in charge of both bestowing life and taking it away. Birth, preservation, care, and supportive medicine are coupled with the termination of life. First, do no harm is the doctor's oath, and yet the animal doctor quite willingly (and kindly) gives the ultimate harm and the final gift of release. Two sides of the same coin. Yin and yang.

Whether human doctors should provide end-of-life options for suffering patients is another issue. The fact is that they do not, and any talk to the contrary is frowned upon anddismissed as unethical or worse. Yet for non-human patients, the expected outcome is "good death," assisted by a pink barbiturate deftly injected into a vein.

Thus the paradox. Human(e) compassion against cold medical/scientific practice. The veterinarian loves animals, chose this job because of this love, and yet every killing is just another day at work. For the animal owner, however, this is usually a heart-wrenching, emotional, and horrific decision. I know. I've been on that end. The veterinarian's job, however, is last-rites giver, counselor, friend, doctor, and executioner—quite the mix of skills.

It's a bizarre snapshot into someone else's life. The first death last week was that of an ailing cockatiel. The elderly owner was in utter hysterics. She left the bird because she could not bear to stay. The crotchety vet was touched; sad. She stalled. She said, "I do not want to kill this bird"—but how many birds has she killed in her career? But the time came, and she put the animal in place, administered gas until she slowed and dropped, shot her up, and pronounced her dead. I watched. I am yet working on desensitization; I was moved by the owner's tears and saddened by the bird's limp body (the bird who had, minutes before, sat on her perch and squawked at me with head feathers raised in indignation). But still, I was not particularly affected. Perhaps I'm already turned the cold scientist. Perhaps "it was just a bird." Perhaps I knew it was for the best. Perhaps I've already mastered the art of disassociation. Regardless, the bird was dead, and we cleaned up, forgot, and moved on.

The next euthanasia was that of a little old dog in the midst of a shuddering seizure. There wasn't anything to be done but put her to sleep (what a euphemism, that, but perhaps it's more correct than we know). It was the day before Christmas Eve. This owner elected to stay, crying and stroking her tremoring pet's head as the vet explained the procedure, explained brain death and the cessation of heartbeat and the possibility of the reflexes of a dying body. Observing passively, with literally no dog in this fight, no emotional attachments, and no particular care for whether the animal lived or died, I felt like an interloper. I was intruding on such an intimate affair and I felt conspicuous and out of place. Of course there was compassion for the poor red-eyed woman who was losing her beloved friend—stroking the head and calling her name even after death—and even a sense of loss for the dog. And of course, empathy for the whole situation (as I said, I've been there). But this, too, passed, as did the dog. And after exchanging sad glances and sighing for the gravity of the situation, we packaged the body up in a trash bag and carted it off to the freezer.

And so, snapshots of lives and deaths. I don't know the people (they are merely clients) except for what I have seen in their time of intense grief. I never knew the animals until their final moments. It's simply a bizarre phenomenon.

I haven't any particularly profound thoughts on the topic, expect that I'm beginning to understand why veterinary medicine is one of the professions with the highest suicide rate. It's not that vets are miserably depressed and self-loathing. Rather, they just understand life and death better than most people. It's a different conception. Live as well as you can as long as you can, but terminal suffering is senseless.

Better to just move on.

(the opening image, by the way, is the accidental capture of a firefly's trail against a summer night sky)

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