Syncope: Wikipedia

I Fainted at the Vet

I heard my dog had 6 months to live.

Six months to live… Shortly after hearing these words from the veterinarian, the black pool opened up at my feet. I started to dive in.

As the veterinarian’s voice faded away, I morphed into Phillip Marlowe, the private detective who anchors dozens of Raymond Chandler’s 1940s pulp-fiction novels and who, before blacking out, plunges into “a pool of darkness.” (Edward Dmytryk renders cinematic Marlowe’s “black pool” in the 1944 film noir Murder, My Sweet.)

I’ve fainted before, so falling head-first into Marlowe’s black pool isn’t new. For me, it’s a rush of heat followed by lightheadedness, muffled sounds, a loss of peripheral vision, and then blackness.

A pool of darkness opened at my feet and was far, far deeper than the blackest night. I dived into it. It had no bottom. — Phillip Marlowe, Farewell, My Lovely (1940)

The earliest instance of fainting I can recall happened at a hospital in south Louisiana. I must have been about 12 years old. I was wearing a pink coat. It was hot in the hallway. The black pool opened up, and I slid down the wall like Kate Winslet’s sweaty hand on that car window in Titanic (1997). The next thing I remember I was drinking Dr. Pepper.

Decades later, I fainted during a mammogram. One moment my right breast was in a vice, and the next, my body was lying prostrate on the floor. Awaking from a blackout is embarrassing. Awaking topless is another level altogether.

I’ve also near-fainted or pre-syncoped several times:

  • after a waiter passed out cold while serving me fried chicken,
  • after a church member visibly broke his foot while playing volleyball,
  • after a friend’s dog accidentally kicked my dog in the head,
  • after my plane to Colorado encountered extreme(-to-me) turbulence, and
  • after seeing my husband wake up from sinus surgery.

People who pre-syncope generally experience all of the symptoms of fainting except the black pool. They don’t lose consciousness. This is what happened to me at the vet—when I heard my 12-year-old cocker spaniel Scout had 6 months to live.


The night before our vet appointment was a scary one, spent in the emergency room.

After greeting me at the door, Scout fell limp on the dining room rug, expelling every drop of her urine on the hardwood floor below.

I flung my backpack onto the floor and ran over to her.

Not knowing if she was alive, I scooped up her 28-pound body and carried it to my car, the whole time whimpering, “No, no. Oh no, Scout. No, no, not yet, sweet girl.” For some reason, I’ve always believed my two cockers would live to at least age 14.

I lowered her urine-soaked, lifeless body into the front seat and closed the passenger door. By the time I made it to the driver’s side, she was stirring.

“That’s it. Come on, Scout,” I coaxed while trying to figure out where in the hell we were going. I drove to the vet, about a mile away. They said they couldn’t help us and sent us to an emergency clinic about 30 minutes away.

I was outraged at this response and the assistant’s explanation: “We don’t have a doctor available right now.” Bullshit. A doctor was there; she was just seeing patients, I assume.

Perhaps this vet is not set up for emergencies such as ours. Fine. Just tell people that.

Yes, I was furious, but I didn’t have the time to do anything about it. My dog needed help. We returned to the car, typed the emergency clinic’s address into the GPS, and drove off into Chicago’s evening traffic.

By this point, Scout was sitting in my lap, alert, inspecting cars on the tollway. She had no idea anything was wrong.

The emergency room doctor informed me that Scout’s heart was enlarged and pressing against her windpipe, and she had fluid around her lungs. These abnormalities caused her to pass out on our dining room floor.

While there, Scout received oxygen, x-rays, and a cocktail of medicine. I received a $750 bill and the assurance that, for the most part, everything was going to be okay. This changed, however, when I visited the vet for a follow-up appointment.


Grade-5 heart murmur… Congestive heart failure… Six months to live…

These are the only things I remember hearing before the black pool began to unfurl at my feet. Still seated, I removed my cardigan. The hot flash came quickly. The pattern had begun.

I tried to excuse myself to the bathroom. I rose, walked two steps, and according to my husband, fell onto his lap. (Before he knew I was about to faint, he thought I was relieving myself on him; I was on my way to the bathroom, after all.)

“Is she okay? Does she need some water? Do we need to call an ambulance?” the vet and her assistant asked.

“No, she just doesn’t handle bad news very well,” I faintly heard him say as I dropped my head between my knees.

I could hear their voices, but I couldn’t respond. I was too busy fighting off Marlowe’s black pool.


Afterword: Almost two months ago, Scout was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Every morning and night, she takes three medications in a small chunk of banana, all of which are working effectively. Some pet owners report that their animals have lived 1-3 years after this diagnosis. We will look to them and remain hopeful. This morning, Scout chased a squirrel out of her backyard, and I did not faint.