Dr. Stork column: A peaceful death

Dr. Bill Stork

“Do you know any good tattoo artists?”

Sylvia Sippel’s file at the Lake Mills Veterinary Clinic resembles the 1978 Encyclopedia Britannica in word count and weight. She brings CSA eggs from the Kelly’s High Meadow Farm for Sheila, and knows Claire’s last three boyfriends. She brings poems, books, and an occasional comeuppance when I deserve it. She’s keenly aware that I’m not our staff expert on subcutaneous ink and body art, “Sure Sylvia, I can get you in with my guy, down on LaSalle.”

“Good, preferably this afternoon — I’m going to have NO tattooed in the middle of my forehead.”

Out-performing her cohorts physically, and certainly mentally, Sylvia has become the Jefferson County Collie respite center. She adopts aged animals surrendered by owners struggling with their own health. She loves every one of them as if she bottle-fed them.

This time, she had become Rainbow Hospice.

Molly had been foisted upon Sylvia by friend-of-a-friend in failing health. “This is not a Collie,” she deadpanned, pointing to the 12-year-old German Shephard at the end of the slack leash as they made the 20 yards from her parking place under the pines, to the porch. Molly’s hocks dropped to the pavement, and her spine jutted like a knife, her epaxial muscles and every gram of fat spent in the ongoing effort to breathe. The corners of her mouth pulled back, neck stretched and base wide, she struggled to drive every molecule of oxygen across her alveoli. The gentle rise in the blacktop must have felt like Kilimanjaro.

We revved the rotor on the x-ray machine, leaded up, and laid her on the table. I hit the throttle on the first inhale, and we returned her to the floor, already slightly purple from a few seconds in lateral recumbency.

It didn’t take a boarded radiologist to make the diagnosis. Her thorax was full of fluid, drowning her heart and pushing her lungs toward her spine. I demonstrated the fluid line with the cursor, “It would be like you trying to breathe, with me sitting on your chest.”

I expected to be reaching for the Euthasol when Sylvia asked, “what can we do to make her feel better?”

I explained the fluid was likely blood, courtesy of a hemangiosarcoma, or equally heinous tumor, residing at the base of her heart. I could drain some of the fluid, but it would return relatively quickly.

“Well, then, get to work.”

We lowered the surgery table, and covered it in rubber mats and a blanket. Sheila and Elisha propped her up. Consumed with the business of breathing, and kind by nature, she didn’t flinch as I placed a lidocaine bleb and slipped an 18-gauge catheter through the intercostals behind her fifth rib, then attached a three-way stopcock.

In half-an-hour and 30 rounds with a 60cc syringe, we had collected over a liter of fluid the color and consistency of a box of Merlot. Molly’s temples softened, the corner of her mouth relaxed, and her breaths settled.

We snapped a radiograph to confirm the presence of the heart-based hemangiosarcoma that had been hiding behind the fluid.

“It could be hours, it could be days,” I speculated blindly as to how long it would take for her chest to refill.

That was not the point.

I turned into the parking lot before seven the next morning. to see the maroon minivan snugged up to the garage. My heart sank. “Damn, she decompensated overnight.”

I poked my head into the darkness of her Korean canine transport vehicle. Molly was lying sternal, comfortably breathing, happily nuzzling an old tennis ball.

Sylvia was resolute, “Ok, now… it’s time to let her go.”

The Greek translate euthanasia to “peaceful death.” Merriam Webster defines it:

“…the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.”

“This must be the worst part of your job; this is why I could never be a vet,” says every grieving family. I have never started my day looking forward to putting an animal to sleep.

In the hands of conscientious families who deeply love their pets, we have the opportunity to spare them their worst days. In those last moments, I have been exposed to the greatest acts of humanity and learned life-long lessons.

This story is for the family whose eight-year-old Boxer has an inoperable squamous cell carcinoma the size of a ping-pong ball on his gums, and spread to his lungs. It is for the H’s with Konner who’s struggled with spondylosis for half of his twelve years and had finally decimated his anterior cruciate ligament. On his last day, Konner was licking faces and drained an entire treat jar.

Possibly the most agonizing was the family who adopted the Hurricane Harvey dog. In spite of the full-on resources of our behavioral staff, the owner’s relentless efforts to counter-condition and socialize, and months of medications, the dog lunged at anyone who came close, family or foe. If he was awake, he was scared.

There are times when they still eat, poop, and wag their tails. Much like Sylvia did for Molly, we seek to save them from their worst days.

Dr. Bill Stork is a country veterinarian from Lake Mills. He has been writing a column for the past six years and wrote a book, “In Herriot’s Shadow.”

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