We show more compassion to dying dogs
We should treat dying humans as compassionately as we do our pets
By: Doug Firby
| Posted: Wednesday, Feb 20, 2013 06:00 am
Recently, my wife and I had to make a very difficult decision that sealed the fate of our dog. You can say her fate was sealed already, because she had terminal cancer in her sinuses, but we were still required to make one decision – when to pull the plug.
Beatrix was a beagle/border collie, and the mix created one of the sweetest natured animals you’d ever meet. She seemed born to please and she craved approval. Although she had a wandering beagle spirit, her border collie compulsion to obey was even stronger. She was at war with herself at times, but it warmed our hearts to see how she almost always opted for the wishes of her masters.
At eight years of age, she was seemingly in perfect health, except for some shaky knees. We had come to think of her as our own little dog/person. She’d come for hikes with us in the Rockies, ride on the bow of our two-person kayak and occasionally sneak up onto the end of the bed at night.
The first sign of trouble appeared last summer when I reached down one day to pat her on the nose. She winced and withdrew, and I was puzzled by her response. Where did that come from in a creature that had never felt an angry blow?
Weeks went by, and the symptom did not seem to get worse. Then, one day, she sneezed and out came a spray of blood.
The vet told us she likely had a sinus infection or possibly a small seed stuck up her snout. A course of antibiotics seemed to clear the symptoms up, but it didn’t last.
Again, the bloody sneeze returned, and a second visit produced another round of antibiotics. By now, it was Christmas and we checked her into a kennel that emphasizes personal care.
Within days, we got a call from the kennel, telling us the bleeding had returned and Beatrix was showing signs of swelling. By the time we got back and took her to the vet, she had a large growth on her nose. A series of X-rays confirmed the worst – there was a large and rapidly growing tumour in her nose, virtually untreatable. Our vet told us a course of radiation and chemotherapy was possible, but cautioned us that even such an extreme treatment would only postpone our dog’s death, and would certainly increase her suffering.
The decision, we were told, was not if but when.
A couple more weeks passed, and we watched the tumour advance. We could hear her struggle to breathe through constricted passages and watched her disposition turn from carefree to something that looked more like confused. It was almost as if Beatrix knew what was going on.
Then, one recent day, I got a frantic call from my wife. The dog was bleeding uncontrollably. We met at the vet, and it didn’t take long before we knew this was the tragic moment when Beatrix’s suffering would end.
We were both in the room when the vet delivered the lethal injection. Within seconds, her breathing stopped. It was impossible to identify the moment when our beloved living dog crossed over into whatever eternal fate these little creatures face.
We were heartbroken, but later something strange occurred to me. We were able to make a decision that spared our little buddy untold suffering. Yet, I knew firsthand from my years working in a hospital, that we put humans through terrible agony in vain attempts to extend life, even when the outcome is as certain as it was for Beatrix.
Are our values confused? What has happened to the ethic of human compassion?
From my hospital experience – and from medical practitioners I spoke with – I know it is an open secret that terminal patients are medicated to death. We aren’t allowed to give them lethal injections, like my dog, but we do pump them full of potent pain killers at levels that would drop a bull. The net effect is the same – they will die, although in a less graceful manner than my pet.
I wonder if it’s time to stop the hypocrisy. When patients are dying, and they know it, and the days ahead are filled with torturous suffering. What is stopping us from doing the kindest and most humane thing?
Last year, when my father-in-law realized his cancer had run out of control and would soon claim him, he made the only legal and rational decision he could make – refusing treatment, and set himself on a rapid but brutal course to end the pain. Surely, we can treat our beloved family and friends better than that.
Life is the most precious gift of all. But sometimes, preserving it is beyond even the most advanced medical science. When that time comes, we have a moral duty as a society to allow our loved ones to choose a graceful exit.
Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media. This column can also be found at www.troymedia.com.