Lessons to Learn from Veterinarians

Last month our little dog of 14 years old finally reached the point where we know it was ‘the time’ to consider how aggressive we would be in treating his medical problems.  He was a good little fellow, rarely caused any problems, could bark up a storm and never failed to charm people.  He had been our constant and loving companion as only dogs can deliver unconditional love.

We took him to the vet and agreed to some blood tests, a trial of medication and change in diet.  The first few days he seemed to improve and we were hopeful.  This was however, short lived and he stopped eating, became fearful of the medication and was more withdrawn.  We used the services of an emergency vet clinic to ask for his euthanasia.  (Please know that I am not going to discuss euthanasia of humans.)

Everyone we spoke to there was kind, and well versed in the right words to say that helped us feel comforted.  There were no awkward silences, people made eye contact and greeting us with a kind smile. Our little buddy was treated kindly and compassionately and we were fully aware in advance of what to expect and how much it was going to cost. 

I bring this up, because of my impression of how different this is from life in the medical world of human beings.  When doctors and nurses are speaking to patients and their families about end of life issues, it often becomes weird and uncomfortable.  We avoid conversation and don’t know the right words to say.  Yes, there is probably part of us all that is afraid of the conversation, but why?  The only certainty beyond birth is that we will die.  In our lifetimes we will have multiple family members and friends who will die and yet we still freeze at the thought of speaking about death and dying. 

In my work as a registered nurse for over 40 years, I have witnessed many scenarios surrounding end of life.  My experience at the Vet clinic had me again wondering why we humans don’t to a better job at this.  Maybe it is time to take a few pages from the Veterinarian’s book. 

We can agree that no one will escape dying.  We can think of kind words that we can say when the time arises.  Even saying, “I’m really sorry for your loss” is a kindness.  Try asking if there is anything you can do to help.  We can embrace people at the saddest time of their lives rather than avoiding them.  If you don’t know what else to say, just offer a hug.

We can make opportunities to share with our loved ones about our end of life wishes well in advance of when they may need to know this important information.  We can ask our families to listen to us even when they may not want to hear it because it will help us and ultimately help them.  We want to have these discussions because of love and not fear. We will complete formal written advance healthcare planning documents like a Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will or a Five Wishes document.

Monday, April 16 is National Healthcare Decisions Day.  A great resource for information on how to get started with your conversation is  A local organization, Your Life Your Wishes Task Force provides opportunities for residents of York County to get more information and complete Advance Directive forms.  They can be found online at (Advance Care Planning) or “Your Life Your Wishes-Community Task Force“ on Facebook.

Liz Winders, RN
Volunteer, Your Life Your Wishes Task Force