In 2014, a young, vibrant woman named Brittany Maynard moved from the home in California she had known all her life so that she could die on her own terms in Oregon. Diagnosed with glioblastoma, arguably one of the most monstrous forms of cancer in this world, Maynard was willing to uproot her life, put her face out into the world, and share a most intimate decision with a universe of strangers in order to help people understand why someone might make the decision to hasten their death.
With little fanfare and no more than a small sidebar in the local newspaper, California has just become the fifth state to legalize assisted death for terminally ill patients. When I read it, on a plane on my way to deliver a talk on how we deal with death in our culture, I cried. I cried for Maynard, and for my mother (seen here on the left at last year’s Fourth of July bash), and for me.
Like so many others, I was transfixed with Maynard’s bravery in opening herself up to scrutiny and criticism. I put myself in her place and wondered what I would have done in the same situation. As a veterinarian who routinely helps people gently end the lives of pets suffering from terminal disease, the idea is not as challenging to me as it is to many. Especially with brain cancer- something that can rob you of the essence of who you are, turn you into someone else, snaking its way without order or reason through your control panel until your body can no longer hang on.
It is, to me, one of the most petrifying propositions out there.
So when my own young and vibrant mother was diagnosed with the very same cancer not five months after Maynard’s death, I fell to my knees and cried with grief, with anger, and above all with terror. For we, too, live in California, and my mother’s delicate health by the time she was diagnosed did not allow us the luxury of moving anywhere. Three weeks before her diagnosis, she was hiking though Red Rock. Three weeks after, she was bedbound. It happened that quickly.
I found myself preoccupied with fear for my mother, and worry about what I might do if her pain and suffering were unable to be controlled. Hospice and palliative care is excellent, but even that has its limits. People I thought were my friends sent me all sorts of horror stories they have heard about this cancer, expressing remorse at the news and the hope that my mother, ever so dignified, would not be one who would lose it all in the fugue of neoplasia.
I am really good at delivering an easy death. I have access to drugs no one else can get, and they are remarkable. We can give them to dogs and cats and rats and horses, but not to people. People have to ride it out on cocktails with middling degrees of efficacy. Our own perceptions make it worse: more than half of palliative care professionals have been accused of “euthanasia or murder” by providing adequate palliation to dying people, because euthanasia for a pet is mercy but for a human is dastardly. We have a long way to go in how we think of these things.
Fearing the Loss of Control
Instead of concentrating on my time with my mother, I spent most of it worrying- what would I do if the meds stopped working? How would I respond if she asked me to help her die? How could I refuse? How could I say yes? I had no reassurance that the necessary tools to control the situation were in my toolbox, and that took away from so many little moments I wish I could have back.
In the end, my mother’s cancer took mercy on her. She died quickly, as she wished, and never once complained of pain. She forgot things, felt sleepy, and drifted off oh so gently into that good night. It was a blessing, strange as it sounds. She willed herself to progress the way she wanted.
Had we been given access to life ending drugs, she would likely have filled the prescription.
Had she filled the prescription, secure in the knowledge that she had some control, she would not have taken them. There is no doubt in my mind. She didn’t need them. It doesn’t change my mind one bit as to their necessity, doesn’t make me any less inclined to cheer this new law and fight any who would seek its appeal. It would not have changed the medicine, but it would have changed the emotion, the fear, and the terror.
Because it’s not the inevitability of the outcome that matters in these situations, it’s the little bits of control we are given in times where so much of it has been taken away.
And that would have changed so much.
Las Vegas has been referred to as The Capital of Second Chances, and thanks to a just released calendar featuring famous Nevada natives a brighter tomorrow is in the cards for dogs and cats who need…
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Lacey had her third Mast Cell Tumour removed the other week. It was on her back this time so we could do the surgery locally and the recovery was so much easier – no bandage changes every few days, no trips to Calgary for check ups, no bootie every time she went outside. We were able to go for walks again right away too and her anal glands (which get infected every time she has a tumour) seemed to bother her more than the incision itself. With a little more hair growth, the scar should be invisible. We got clean margins so that was a relief!
Dogs have been members of the military for many, many years, but they weren’t always seen as soldiers. At least to the leadership.
During the Vietnam War, when the troops withdrew, the dogs were left behind as ‘surplus equipment.’ To this day, that fact haunts many of their handlers, who knew without a doubt that these loyal canines were nothing short of soldiers themselves.
It is not an easy job. More than 500 dogs are deployed serving the military at any given time. They protect, serve, give emotional support, and sometimes die in the line of duty. Up to 5% of canines are thought to suffer a canine form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Fortunately today, attitudes towards military dogs have changed. Military canines are recognized as fellow soldiers, who are treated when injured, retired when done with their work, and thanked for the sacrifices they make without complaint.
Our veterans give so much and are so humble about what they go through in service to the country. I have so much respect for the sacrifices they and their families make every day. One day doesn’t seem like nearly enough to honor you.
Thank you, to the men, women, and canines of the armed forces.
If you’d like to see some amazing images, check out NatGeo’s Dogs of War gallery.
I was certain when I had kids that my motherhood chip would finally kick in, that I would finally start to react to babies the way I reacted to dogs and cats. Because surely that maternal instinct in my heart had merely been misdirected all these years, and was simply in need of a little oxytocin and fine-tuning to point it to the appropriate species upon which I should lavish my affection.
Now my kids are 11 and 9 and I can say this with absolute certainty: not so much.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my kids, I love being their mom, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them. Well, I could, especially on certain days when the attitude is dialed to 11, but I much prefer it the way things are.
As in, I don’t want more kiddos and never have. When my friends go into Babies R Us to pick out a shower gift, they sigh and say, “Don’t you miss those days?”
And I, inspecting the newest Diaper Genie version and wondering if it would work for cat litter, reply honestly: “No.” I was exhausted and overwhelmed the entire time from 2004-2011 or so.
When I see a pregnant woman waddling by and others remark on her glow, I think about how sweaty she must be, or if her bladder hurts as much as mine did, or if she has complete strangers lift their hands up in shock and go “WHOA!” when she turns around in her ninth month of pregnancy with a 9 pound son and they get a glimpse of the battleship of an abdomen.
Motherhood has changed me in some ways: I look at people’s new babies and I smile. But I don’t need to hold them. I am so, so, SOOOOOO much more compassionate about people with babies on planes. I hold doors for parents with strollers trying to get through. That sort of thing. And I look upon it with nostalgia, but not a lick of longing. No pun intended.
When I was getting my hair done a while back, a woman came in with a duckling. I lost my head at the cuteness and almost lost my hair too because I kept jumping out of the chair to squee. I went home and tried to get my husband, once more, to agree to raising a couple chickens (he said no.)
A woman at my gym brings her chihuahua in on occasion. I never get anything done when she does. (My husband has also said no to a chihuahua.)
The point is less that he said no to more animals and more the fact that I want them, the way I imagine some mothers must see a baby sleeping in a stroller and say to herself, “Oh, I wish I just had one more.”
This morning as I was walking by a cafe, I spotted a family with a black lab sitting at a table about 50 feet away. The dog and I locked eyes, and before I knew it I was on the ground laughing getting dog kisses as the family grinned. I don’t remember how many people there were or what they looked like but the dog was a boy, black labrador, about 50 pounds, with a blocky head and the tiniest bit of grey peeking around his muzzle. He is 9, his name is Brock, and he likes to lay down with his legs splayed behind him.
As I lamented about my hopelessness to my friend Jen, she remarked, “You just have a fuzzy heart is all.” And I think she’s right.
I’m also pretty sure it’s genetic.
I have a theory. I think that when we get a pet, they grab a piece of our heart and give us a bit of theirs in return. It’s how we will find them on the other side. And the older I get, the more pieces get replaced; my heart is getting furrier and furrier, and it’s made not only of my own pets but the clients I adore, my friends’ animals I have loved, the strangers like Brock who know just where to find it.
Another puppy-fix today. Here’s little ‘Biggie’ again doing what a Jack Russell does best – exploring and having fun.