I cried at work today.
That one statement carries a lot of weight for me. Crying at work isn’t something I often indulge in. When it comes to cases, I’ve learned not to lean-in emotionally. I’ve trained myself to preserve a minimum amount of disconnect to protect my own mental well-being. Most days, it’s the only way I can survive this profession.
My emotional shield may have unraveled today, but the process took place over the course of this week. It started with an emergency call the afternoon of July 4th. That’s when Bubba the Beagle entered my world and started picking apart my very meticulously manufactured armor.
Bubba had been attacked by another dog and by all rights, had no business being alive. It was obvious by his wounds the other dog had every intention of killing him. Bubba shouldn’t have been breathing, but here he was, laying on my exam table, with a distraught owner draped over his broken and bleeding body.
After my initial assessment, I was concerned that he didn’t seem to have much function in his front limbs. Being that a majority of his wounds were around his neck and head, I questioned some sort of spinal trauma. However, the radiographs were normal. No obvious fractures or dislocations. Damn.
I’d be lying if I said a considerable part of me was hoping to find something major on those images. The little dog that was laying so calmly in front of me was going to have such a long and painful fight ahead of him. Finding something definitively “unfixable” makes the decision much easier for the owner. In that scenario, euthanasia is a simple choice and clients attain closure so much sooner. However, absolutely nothing about Bubba was simple.
My medical brain told me this dog had such a tiny chance of surviving with what I could offer. I couldn’t send him to a referral center because the owner was barely going to have the money for my work-up. Yet, he hung on to Bubba so tightly, begging me to try. “I have to do something,” he kept saying between sobs. So I spent the next several hours working on him. Clipping wounds that never seemed to end. Scrubbing, suturing, placing drains, checking fluid rates, monitoring vitals…on and on. Everything took twice as long because I was alone. It was a holiday and I didn’t feel right about asking a tech to come in and assist. It was just me and Bubba.
I wish I could say I was feeling heroic and altruistic, but the truth is, I wasn’t. I was resentful. I was called away from my family and friends. I was working on a creature that would likely die in the next few hours, and there was a good chance I wasn’t going to get paid. I wasn’t having a James Herriott moment.
I patched him up as well as I could and said a little prayer. I prepared the owner for the fact that he may not make it through the night. I assumed I’d find a dead dog waiting for me in the morning.
But Bubba wouldn’t die. Bubba refused to die. The next morning he was stable and stayed stable for another thirty-six hours. Then his blood work changed and indicated he was getting ready to crash. That’s when I did what every modern, well-educated veterinarian does and consulted my network of other colleagues online. I put Bubba’s case on a Facebook group filled with 11,000 brilliant vets. Within seconds, I had comment after comment of tips and things to try. I had specialists giving suggestions and support. Maybe Bubba had a chance after all…
I was consumed with his case for days. Throughout the weekend I was physically with my family, but I was mentally somewhere else. My outspoken children commented several times about how I was leaving them, once again, to go check on “that dog”. I was completely torn between being a good vet and a good mom. I was failing at being both simultaneously.
As the days went on, I created irrational symbolism upon Bubba’s survival. If I was going to be sacrificing myself as a wife and mother, then the stupid dog better darn-well live! From an emotional standpoint, I allowed him the chance to prove me wrong, that alone let me become vested. Every time I wrote him off, he’d bounce back. One, tiny bit at time he kept defying the odds.
Within a few days, he was strong enough to go home and continue his wound healing there. I knew he still had a long road, but systemically, he was through the worst of it. I was (reluctantly) elated when he walked out of the building. Maybe we were actually going to win this thing! Maybe the time away from my family would be all worth it in the end.
Six days later, he came back for a recheck. I had already made a plan for bandaging and wound care. What I wasn’t prepared to see was his entire left ear sloughing from his head. It was obvious that no part of the external ear was viable. It was going to come off, and due to the massive tissue trauma surrounding the rest of his head, it was very unlikely that any sort of cosmetic or functional closure would be possible without thousands of dollars of specialized care. Care that I couldn’t offer.
Bubba’s owner had been waiting out in his truck while I did my “quick” recheck exam. I walked out to him and when he saw my face, he knew it immediately. Bubba was in trouble—again. I had to explain it a few different times, because understandably, it wasn’t an easy concept to visualize. As he sat with a cigar box full of 1980’s baseball cards on his lap (which I assumed he was planning on selling to subsidize Bubba’s care), I had to put into words what we were now asking of him. He needed surgery that I had zero experience with and little confidence that it would be successful. He would need to undergo multiple procedures, some of which could be painful, over the course of several weeks, and in the end, they likely wouldn’t work. There was no good choice.
I walked away and let him have time to take it all in. I couldn’t make this decision for him. I went inside and waited. Just like when I came out to the truck, and he knew my news wasn’t good, as soon as I saw him standing at the reception desk, I knew what choice he had made. He tried to articulate it, but it came out in sobs. I nodded. And I cried too. We couldn’t keep asking the impossible of Bubba.
We sat outside, on a picnic table intended for employee use but we were in unanimous agreement that Bubba needed to be in the sunshine. He was happiest outside. Three of us sat around him—my tech (who also had so many hours into his care), myself and his heartbroken owner. It was a peaceful hell.
This may sound strange, but I’m usually good at euthanasia. I’ve disciplined myself to be the model of caring and composure. I’ve recognized that when owners are in this heart-wrenching situation, they need quiet strength. They need reassurance that this is the last gift we can provide their pet.
It was a struggle to be “good” at Bubba’s passing. The weight of my career seemed to fall on this one dog. My choices as a parent and spouse were somehow tangled up in his survival. I felt every bit of grief giving up on a dog who never gave up on himself. However, I respected Bubba enough to not experiment with my surgical abilities on him. I respected my client’s budget enough to not keep spending money he didn’t have. It was a crappy decision, but it was the right decision.
I’ve had emotionally charged cases many times in my career. There’s no rational reason for this one to be affecting me so deeply. I suspect that it has more to do with how it pulled me from my family on so many occasions, and yet, I still wasn’t able to be anyone’s hero. I feel the disappointment coming from all sides. I couldn’t give anybody the win.
I suppose Bubba came into my life for a specific purpose as I don’t believe anything happens without a reason. Perhaps I’ve been overdue on p
ersonal reflection and evaluating my priorities. Maybe I’m closer to the edge of burn-out than I realize.
I may not be entirely certain what my ultimate path is yet, but I do appreciate that Bubba has led me to something potentially bigger than myself. All of us in this profession have had a Bubba, but many haven’t been able to process the emotional toll it creates. Not everyone can find the words for their discontent. Maybe a story about my experience with battered beagle will be a voice for others. Maybe it’s time we forgive ourselves for crying at work.