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Hard decisions – the right time to die.

Posted in Aging, and Life & Love

tumblr_m7nns8o0vp1qc41umo1_1280Last weekend Jack started choking and gasping for breath. I applied the dog Heimlich and fished around in the poor bugger’s gullet with my finger trying to find whatever it was that was ailing him – but to no avail. He could breathe, but it was a gurgling gasp and his little body was inflating and contracting so much I could see the outline of his ribs. “Yes, take him to the vet now,” said my neighbour Rob – expert on all things canine, “better than a disaster tomorrow.”

It was 6.30pm on a Friday. The vet was closed and I left messages. Eventually Ben called back. He had been reconstructing the facial bones of a colt who had run into a pole: “I’ll meet you at the surgery in 20 minutes.”

“We’ll make supper,” said Hannah and Kyra. “And I’m coming with you,” said Riley, “you mustn’t be on you own.” We didn’t say much in the car, but both of us had our hands on his belly feeling for rise and fall. We were thinking the same thing

Two hours later my poor dog had endured a sedative, full anaesthetic, had his leg shaved and all manner of implements thrust down his throat. At one point his little tongue had turned lilac and I saw the vet blench. He injected my dog with something and the colour came back. And then with something else to take down the swelling in his airways. And then with a steroid. I could tell he was crapshooting. He had no idea what was wrong. When he was out of options he brought Jack back from under the drugs and my poor boy tottered round looking at me with bewildered eyes.

Exhausted and sore, but breathing.

My sick boy.

We drove home and he lay on my lap so still, so ‘not there’ that Riley eventually voiced what I was thinking: “Suzie are you sure Jack’s not dead?”

He wasn’t; but that night was a bad one. Jack sounded like he was drowning — his every breath was an ugly symphony of wet wheezing and gurgling. He would sit up to stare at shadows, then collapse with a whimper. At 3.00am he was in such distress that I breathed into his nose for a good five minutes, until he struggled upwards and pushed me away. He curled up against me again only to roar and gasp up again.

Saturday was better — but I could tell he wasn’t himself. “Wait and see,” said the vet.

Sunday 11pm found us back in emergency. The desperate choking had started again and I thought he was going to die. When we got there, a couple was sitting in the waiting room: trying to make a decision. “We’re going to say goodbye,” I heard the woman tell her father, “yes tonight, we need to, she is in too much pain.” They signed the consent form and went through into the back room. Less than three minutes later they returned — cradling the lifeless form of their cat. Tenderly wrapped in a towel. “We’re going to bury her at home,” the young man told me. “She deserves that.”

The Vet looked at me and said: “It is always so awful, one never gets used to it. But come now, let us see what we can do for your baby.” More steroids and a bag of intravenous antibiotics late,r and Jack was breathing calmly. “Take him home and keep him close, and don’t worry he is going to be all right.” As I drove back through the rain, with my dog cradled against my heart, I thanked all the forces that had made me able to give him that care. We went to bed, slept for 8 hours straight and in the morning he was much better.

Caroline Coetzee

My mother once told me that the night before Honey (our family dog) was put down, mom cried so much her ears filled with tears. She said that the holding of Honey as she died was the most awful thing she had ever done. I remembered those tears as I had sat waiting for the anaesthetic to take Jack under: my gasping hound on my lap. The room was bright white fluorescent — everything was hard and etched. My little niece was right beside me — watching, quiet. Both of us suddenly so vulnerable and so exposed to the possibility of death. Both of us willing the other to believe it wouldn’t happen. She was stroking him gently and I was making deals with the universe… “don’t let this little dog die, oh please”. Then the lightness went out of his body and I instinctively put my ear to his stomach to see if his heart was still beating. Riley did the same.

I know I need to be with him if the day ever comes, and I will — every step of the way. But the sense of him being gone was so real and huge it winded me. I will have to steel myself. I will need to have somewhere to go afterwards.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the assisted suicide or ‘right to die’ debate. The most often repeated ‘against’ being that people will choose to euthanise family members who have become a burden through sickness or mental incapacitation. And perhaps they will. But I have to trust that legal checks and balances will take care of that awfulness.

For the rest of us — it may be a decision we have to make one day – for ourselves or for another. A decision we will have to think long and hard on. The deciding will not be easy and it will never be without abuse — that is the human way. But I still believe we should have the right. Because just for a moment in that chair I felt the weight of a dog’s last breath. And even if it is half that of a last human breath, it felt like the weight of the world.

(Image of plastic toys copyright Caroline Coetzee, used with permission. Image of Jack, copyright campari&sofa. Image of The Smile Room found unattributed on Facebook.)

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  1. OH mu gosh, I just saw this. I am so sorry that you went through this. Our dog sitter lost our dog last summer for almost a week while we were out of the country and we felt so powerless and cried everyday while on vacation (luckily she was found after amber alert, etc). There is no word to describe the love between our loyal canine family member and human members. Hope J is doing better now!

    July 20, 2015
  2. silvia

    You’re a great negotiator sofagirl and I’m so glad you are. The universe answer was “not yet” and these two simple words make a huge difference between heaven and hell. Now it’s important to understand what happened and enjoy life with him.
    Regardless of age and species, any time I see a life in pain with no possible alternative, no doubt I firmly believe we should have a choice.

    July 17, 2015
  3. Glenis

    Sue, after Honey was “put to sleep” I wrote to the Vet that had treated her for most of her life (he had moved to the UK). Honey unbelievably although hating being at the doctor, used to lick his hand when he treated her. I never expected a reply. But one came from this lovely young man who told me “Honey will definitely be waiting for you in heaven”.

    July 17, 2015
  4. I hope Jack makes a full recovery. Having a pet means making hard decisions, and I do hope you get to postpone that for a very, very long time… Sending you two healing thoughts.

    July 17, 2015
  5. Winston Moreton
    Winston Moreton

    My beloved acquires and succours the many pets who have shared their lives happily with us and our children. And my beloved’s mum (Oma Jans) did too – for 30 years; caring for our children when young. It has always fallen to me to make the final arrangements and say the last goodbye.

    July 17, 2015
  6. It’s beyond horrible to watch our fur-babies suffer especially knowing in the back of your mind that one day you’ll need to let them go. Having done that more times than I’d like to admit, please know all our love and positive puppy thoughts from me and Sam are coming your way. Hoping your Jack feels better soon and know I’m thinking of you both. <3

    July 17, 2015
  7. It’s an awful scare when our four-legged friends get sick and can’t tell us what is wrong. I dread the day I have to say goodbye to my furry child. Hugs to you. xx

    July 17, 2015
  8. I am glad that Jack is okay – you have both been to the edge of the abyss in the last few days. I have so many confusing thoughts and memories rushing around in my brain from reading this post. In the last twenty years I have held five of my cats as they were put to sleep, and it was the least I could do for them in their last moments. However, in my mother’s final days in this world I could do absolutely nothing for her except pray that her passing would be painless. As far as we know, it was – she died in her sleep without ever waking up again. Would I have been able to do anything to help her on her way if she had asked me to and if euthanasia was legal? I don’t think so, but I’m glad that I didn’t have to make that choice.

    July 17, 2015
  9. camparigirl

    I didn’t realize he had been sick again. Poor bugger! Any explanation for what occurred? Does he have asthma? Yesterday I was with a 99 year old patient, a lovely woman with all her mental faculties intact. Very matter of fact, she asked me if I knew when she was going to die. “I couldn’t possibly know that. You should talk to your doctor, although you don’t look like you are dying.” She told me she was 99, that she had lived a long and good life, that she had nine great-grandchildren and two daughters, too busy with their companies to come and visit. “I am in pain. What difference do a week or a month or a year could possibly make at this point?” Nothing I could say about how one more day could still be precious mattered anymore. I totally got her point even if I couldn’t quite voice my agreement. I firmly believe we should have the choice. And, when it comes to our pets, we have to trust we can make that choice too. I had three dogs die in my arms and it never gets easier – although not being with them when the time comes is definitely not an option. Hugs to Jack from me, Ottie and Portia.

    July 17, 2015

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