Origin stories are heralds of doom
Working as a veterinarian means you end up doing a lot of work with people. This gives you a lot of opportunity for people watching, and you notice patterns of behaviour. This is useful because it helps you realise what these clients need, but don’t want to ask you.
I’ve noticed that when people start to tell you about their pet’s life story, particularly their origin story, they’re already grappling with the idea that they’re about to lose their pet, even if they don’t know it yet. It’s like they know they’re about to be devastated, it’s a fast attempt to make me, the veterinarian, understand why their pet in particular is so very special to them. It’s a cry for validation that the grief that is about to wash over them is valid and justified.
I already know their grief is real and justified, even if it’s the first time I’ve met the animal and family. You can see it. It might be the family pet, but most of the time that pet has one special human that is their favourite, one human that loves them just a little bit more than the others, and I can see it on their faces.
The origin stories are all the same, and all unique.
“He was the runt of the litter and had to be put on a table so the other pups would stop bullying him while I was there. I went back and had to have him.”
“She was my daughter’s dog, but we started dog sitting when she had her first baby and then she just never left.”
“I’ve had him since he was three weeks old, a tiny scrap of fluff we found under the tomato bush and bottle fed.”
“The cat just walked into our new house like she owned the place, terrorised the dog and never wanted to leave.”
“She had kittens under the chair on my veranda, so I took her inside to make her comfortable.”
They’re all heartfelt stories of beautiful, ordinary moments that make life special, but they’re always told around the time of euthanasia. Some tell them before they’ve accepted the fact that they need to say goodbye, some say it afterwards as they’re composing themselves.
I was working emergency yesterday, a gruelling twelve hour shift on a public holiday. I had several palliative care and complex medical cases on the go from the previous weeks, and because I hate to leave my clients and patients without a plan I had told them which emergency clinic I would be working at so they could contact me if they were unsure about anything. It’s better for your long term sanity than handing out your mobile number to clients, which I can’t answer in work hours anyway.
When I arrive at my emergency shift at midday I find one of my patients waiting for me in a cage, hooked up to pain relief and looking miserable. The hospital vet hands over responsibility for her to me, and I go through her blood results. Pancreatitis and massive inflammation, in addition to everything else she has going on.
The day goes on, crazy busy, and ten hours later she’s starting to look worse. Puffing, ventral oedema and a subtle bruise colour developing on her shaved abdomen.
At shift handover I explain the dog’s story to the night vet at the start of her shift.
“Her owner died a few months ago, and the day of his funeral the patient had her first seizure. Subsequently also diagnosed with heart disease. At 1 month recheck noted weight loss and identified abdominal mass. Wife wasn’t going to put her through surgery, then got an attack of the guilts because her husband would have done anything for this dog. Mass is single lobe of liver, hugely distended, while rest of liver appears normal. Results are most likely liver tumour at base of lobe, undefined. Patient nearly died under anaesthetic but has been recovering well these last ten days until presentation. She’s anxious in hospital and wont eat without her humans around, her favourite is chicken.”
I told her origin story. I really knew, but didn’t want to accept, that my patient wouldn’t be leaving ICU and I put her to sleep a few hours later. Since her owner’s death it seems like she’d been trying very hard to join him, between the seizures, heart disease, liver tumour, pancreatitis and DIC.
I don’t cry over many patients, but I did for her.
And I told her origin story.