Timing is everything!
While reading and reviewing Karen Fine, DVM’s inspirational and passionate new volume: “The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life, and Mortality,” I was forced to send my beloved 11-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi Maggie May over the Rainbow Bridge.
Amidst a river of tears, this was the perfect – and healing – resource to help me come to grips with what was to suddenly become a huge void in my life. Here I was home alone for the first time in decades battling Acute Myeloid Leukemia and widowed. Since my wife died five years ago, Maggie was my therapy dog (not registered), always there to greet me after a long day of treatment at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle or a brief trip to a nearby grocery store or pharmacy.
I could count on hearing her friendly, light-hearted bark as I approached the front door signaling, “Hey, Dad’s home! It’s time to eat, play and hopefully go for a walk.”
Maggie suffered from debilitating Dengerative Myelopathy, which is a cousin to Lou Gehrig’s disease in humans. She faced it head-on for 16 months before her rear quarters finally gave out in mid-April. Through that journey, she was treated twice monthly with acupuncture and laser, which provided short-term relief. We tried a cart, too, which enabled us to do short walks to a nearby park.
Finally, a few hours after her final treatment, she was telling me, “It’s time, Dad,” as tears began streaming down my face. She was in no pain and mentally sharp, but her body was saying, that’s enough. I had to let go. This proud dog no longer had the strength to pick up her rear end and get to the yard to relieve herself.
Fine, an associate veterinarian at Central Animal Hospital in Leominster, Massachusetts, addresses that same angst, sensitivity, and grit– with her own dogs – the enormous daily stress on the short-handed veterinary profession while “learning to be stoic in the face of emotional stress.” Make no mistake about it, the author is a healer, utilizing Chinese Medicine, conventional Western Medicine, and a combination of both in a myriad of cases.
But a key takeaway from this smooth-moving read is her approach to the human-animal bond with its collage of characters – both human and pet – and her acknowledgment that she is treating the owners as much as the pet in the life-end scenarios. She notes that many fellow Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine students years ago referred to the Human-Animal Bond, amidst a large array of courses, like Anatomy, Physiologically, Biochemistry, and Cardiology, as a “fluff class.”
Following graduation and into practice, that little “fluff class” became “far more relevant than I could have imagined,” she emphasizes. Throughout this riveting volume no question but it’s the heart stone of her treatment philosophy.
From her widespread caseload – including house and office calls alike – she says, “The care people took of their animals depends on the pet’s value to them, not where they lived or how much money they had.”
Fine offers a spirited perspective on house visits, which allowed her “to observe my patients’ and clients’ stories in greater depth, which helped me individualize their treatment. It also gave me a sense of community for the first time in my life.”
The role pets play in our lives cannot be underrated. In my case, Maggie was my soul mate. With emotional acuity, our lives intersected at every corner.
. . . “These days when much of our communication is virtual,’ Fine says, “it is not only refreshing but vital to interact with a real live creature. We touch and are touched, by our pets. They ground us in both time and place. Our pets see us – really see us, as we see them.”
Hence, it’s no surprise that we cling on in our pets’ late stages, no matter the disorder. Fine does it here with her own cherished pets, too.
One gripping and powerful chapter, “Dances With Death,” hit me like a psychological hand grenade on the heels of Maggie’s passing. She addresses how euthanasia “kind of creeped me out” as a veterinary student at Tufts. “When I performed one, it felt as though I had been given privileged access to a special power. I didn’t understand that nobody understood. I didn’t know what to make of it.”
As I read this days following Maggie’s final minutes, I began reliving those gut-wrenching final moments with tears again flowing down my cheeks, picturing her eyes closing gently for the last time and her heart coming to a stop. She was at peace, but I was an emotional train wreck.
Throughout this candid chapter, Fine details in step-by-step fashion a wide assortment of cases with similar saying-goodbye scenarios. While commonplace in the profession, euthanasia, she notes is unique. “Each one entails being fully present, as a sign of respect—for life, for death, for the individual being, for their human family.”
“The Other Family Doctor” delivers an emotional mosaic in a gentle and accommodating style, leaving the reader with both a respect and a keener understanding of the heart and soul of the veterinary profession, which has one of the highest suicide rates of any professional field and a shortage of personnel, too.
Treating pets means treating their caretakers, too. Fine writes,” Each appointment, each conversation, fits into a larger story, an ongoing narrative not only of my patient but of my human client and their lives together.” This, she explains, viewing the larger story and the role each pet plays in its owner’s life. “When I take a history from a client, I’m seeking some kind of framework; information about my patients seemed like random bits of data until I assembled them into a story.”
“As I watch someone struggle with grief, acceptance, or decision-making, I find myself reaching back into my own suffering, searching for something – a memory, kind words, and an insight – anything to help the brokenhearted person in front of me to at least realize they are not alone. Still, in doing so, I need to remain professional and maintain appropriate boundaries.”
Each case is different, Fine writes. In the midst of deep grief and emotional paralysis, some owners proclaim they are not getting another pet. Others, meanwhile, are ready to open their heart to one another.
I look at it this way: Maggie would prefer to hand off the Corgi baton to another, knowing full well my lonely state of mind and that I would never compare another with her. The newcomer will establish its own role but will never replace The Princess, as Maggie was known to relatives and friends.
“The Other Family Doctor” is the complete package with a mosaic-like feel. It offers insight, emotional buoyance, and deep currents in life. Some stories resonate more deeply than others, but all exude a substance and style that leave a deep impression and familiarity in the process.
“The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality,” by Karen Fine, DVM. Anchor Books. $28.
Also available on Amazon.