Eye Contact at the End of Life
The gift of euthanasia in veterinary medicine
Chocolate turned her nose skyward and made eye contact. Held it. Waiting for her dinner bowl to clop onto the tile. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for okay.
Carla had trained her to connect when the lab pup’s determination to chase — birds in the air, ducks on the pond, dogs in the park, rabbits, squirrels — had nearly removed her shoulder from the socket with the jerking of the leash. It was a starting place for training.
Thirteen years later a mellowed Chocolate attempted the bare wood stairs to Carla’s upstairs bedroom. She slipped back down and collapsed on her rump. All the x-rays, acupuncture, pills later, it was a no go.
Carla paid for carpeting on the stairs. And used a belly sling to help Chocolate up. That worked for a couple of months. Then the muscles weakened, the back dropped the minute the aging dog was touched, even petted. She slid to the tile and whined when Carla started up the stairs.
Carla moved her bed mattress to the living room and hung her work clothes on the banister. She still had to shower upstairs. Chocolate whined.
Chocolate began defecating on the back porch instead of taking a step out onto the backyard grass. Carla cleaned up after her with Clorox every day. Chocolate had an accident just inside the door. Carla started leaving the sliding glass door open when she was home, at least. And then Chocolate started running in to the glass, the kitchen island, chairs. And getting stuck behind doors, chairs, the couch.
Carla turned the chairs on their sides and made a pathway that Chocolate could follow from her kitchen food bowl to the sliding glass door, to the living room where her orthopedic bed sat next to Carla’s mattress.
Until one day when Chocolate tried to make eye contact but couldn’t quite raise her nose skyward. And she didn’t try to eat the softened kibble in her dinner bowl that clopped on the tile. And again the next day.
Chocolate had been my patient for 15 years. Carla had been a friend and her son Kevin played soccer with mine. I walked in to their house with a small sack and the three of us sat on the rug in the living room, telling favorite dog stories, gently stroking Chocolate’s graying head. We didn’t look at each other. Not then.
“Okay,” I said. “One of you on each side of her, close, talking to her. Pet her.“
I took her right paw and slid a tourniquet up her foreleg to her elbow. I swabbed the vein that stood up on top of her leg and gently inserted the needle, making sure the bevel was upright so it wouldn’t block against a vein wall. I looked over to see that Carla and Kevin were ready and Carla nodded. “I love you, Chocolate,” she said.
I pushed in the purplish fluid that contained an overdose of the anesthetic, pentobarbital, and potassium, and kept holding the foreleg.
I glanced over and saw that Chocolate had made eye contact — with me — and heard her sigh, felt her ease into peace and release from pain, confusion, and loss.
I said out loud, “Thank you for loving her this much.”
Carla and Kevin did not look up. We cried.