Last week was a rough one. We had to put our 16-year-old cat, Bianca, to sleep. She pre-dated my husband, my profession, and my writing life. Needless to say, I felt very close to her. Only problem? She wasn’t very close to me. She was a hisser, a scratcher, and an occasional biter. I still loved her, but when the time came to euthanize her, I doubted myself and wondered if I was doing it for convenience.
I know it wasn’t about convenience. She couldn’t jump, couldn’t climb, and was drinking water out of the shower because she was too weak to hold her head up over the edge of the water bowl. She was too tired to hiss when the kids picked her up, too weak to protest when placed in someone’s lap. If I didn’t know my cat, I’d say she had become a lap cat in her old age. But when she yowled at night, in pain, I knew the time had arrived.
The girls took it hard. I did, too. Even the husband shed a tear. (Don’t tell him I told you.) I worked that weekend, and several co-workers asked how I was holding up. The conversation, being held in an ER, soon turned to humans, and how some people wished euthanasia would be made legal for their human loved ones.
Person after person told of a family member with terminal lung cancer. With Alzheimer’s so severe that the person didn’t remember to eat and needed a feeding tube. With congestive heart failure requiring oxygen and intravenous medications just to keep the person from drowning in his own fluids. Some wished that they could help them on the final journey. Others felt it was morally wrong. Conversation became heated.
Medicine in America is different than medicine in other countries. Death is seen as a disease, a condition to be avoided, a failure. In other places, death is part of life. It’s not something to be feared. Doctors aren’t sued when it occurs. Money is spent to make sure death is honorable, honest, and free from pain.
When I took the Hippocratic Oath, I swore to First Do No Harm. While I don’t think euthanasia is the right answer, I do think we need to spend more time making death something that is free from pain. Something that is part of the journey, not an end to be feared. Palliative Care is such an important field that does good work. I just wish we used it more.
When my own father passed, some in my family criticized that we didn’t send him to the hospital. It’s true. We didn’t. We didn’t put him on antibiotics. We didn’t put him on intravenous fluids. Instead, we gathered around his bedside, lit a candle, and reminisced about the man who was leaving us. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.