Why End-of-Life Care???

Posted on January 26, 2014 by Lynn Henderson

It’s the elephant-in-the-room and I suppose now is as good a time as any to address the question. Why do this work? Ok, yes, every veterinarian will encounter end-of-life situations on a regular basis – but to ‘specialize’ in it? (Please note that I use the term ‘specialize’ for the sake of the average non-veterinary reader and hereby proclaim that I am not certified in any veterinary ‘specialty’ – I am a general practitioner). That being said, I have made a conscious decision to focus my practice on geriatric pets and in-home end-of-life care (natural death or euthanasia), and to many people, that is weird. 

 I guess I stumbled into this work. I had worked at several small animal veterinary practices and had seen many ways of doing ‘things’. Despite regulations describing the basic care standards for veterinary facilities, there is a significant amount of wiggle-room for the private practitioner to choose how he or she wishes to do things. This is why there is such a variation in quoted fees for similar services when you call around to clinics ‘price-shopping’. But I digress, that is a rant for another blog. In my time at these various clinics, I truly began to feel-out what mattered to me in my practice, and more importantly – what I no longer wanted to do. 

In general practice, people would often call inquiring about at-home euthanasia, or would indirectly ask a veterinarian to come to their home to see their ailing older pet. None of the practices in which I worked would offer this service, and kindly told clients to figure out how to get their recumbent/oversized/non-ambulatory (insert tragic adjective) pet into the clinic for evaluation. At one particular practice, I was good friends with the owner and offered to go out on my own time to see his clients when they requested in-home euthanasia. I thought that it was something I would be comfortable with, even though he himself did not offer house-call services. Further, I naively thought he would find this option helpful, a practice-builder. He did not. We soon parted ways – my interest in mobile veterinary work was less than appealing to him (perhaps threatening) and I had to find my way as a new business owner. 

I was fortunate in my area, to have little competition in the house-call veterinary market. With some savy advertising dollars spent, I developed a healthy clientele in a short time.  We offered vaccination, illness and wound evaluation, heartworm and flea medication, laboratory services and prescription medications. Success was mine!… and yet I was still searching. The appointments that always spoke to me in a deep and meaningful way, were the end-of-life visits. In these situations, my service makes it possible for pets (and their people) to remain in their safe place – be that at home, the forest, a favourite spot. we take as much time as is needed for the family members to fully understand the situation, and the steps of the euthanasia procedure (when requested). Each circumstance lends itself to individual memorial options as well – photographs, pawprints, fur clippings, or just telling stories about the pet as we prepare our supplies for the procedure. There is no time limit, no other appointments barking in the waiting room, no phones ringing – and as best I can manage it – my heart and my focus is solely on the people and the pet there with me in that moment. 

After a pet has passed, both the family and the pet are still in need of care. This is such a vital time for healing and it is overlooked in veterinary practice, and in veterinary medical education. I have sought out specialized educational programs in order to learn all I can about body care and memorial options for pets and pet parents respectively. I have personally visited my cremation provider, have transported patients to the crematorium, and have witnessed the standards practiced therein.  I am a member of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, and the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care. Through both of these organizations I have made valuable contacts and have learned about such areas as pet loss/bereavement, memorial options, and procedural and medical tricks-of-the-trade. 

It is an honour to be allowed to be a part of this tender, yet incredibly difficult time in the lives of families. To be trusted with the care of a beloved family member in such a way is so important, and I hope to never take for granted the faith that is placed in me by my clients. 

I hope these words help people understand why a perfectly average veterinarian would opt out of a life in clinical medicine, and would leap head-first into geriatric and end-of-life care for pets. More times that I can count, I have heard the words “I could never do your job, You have the worst job ever.”  – I humbly disagree. I love my job. I love feeling like I give something important to people and animals each and every day that I get in the van.

-Lynn Henderson B.Sc. DVM.


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