“Good Death”

Today, I’m musing about euthanasia, a word that means “good death”.  As I drove away from the home in Waupaca wherein I had just euthanized a 13-year-old, 13-pound, lovable, much-loved, black, curly-haired dog with intestinal cancer, I thought to myself, “What a privilege it was for me to have assisted that dog through that sacred passage from life to death.”  My wife admires me because I am able to provide this service to local families.  Why? Couldn’t someone else say that I had just “murdered” that dog? Oh the irrationality of us human animals!

Veterinarians are the only healthcare professionals whose license permits them to perform euthanasia. I have been a veterinarian since 1980. I feel so grateful for all I have received and witnessed.  I have worked in—and I have had access behind the closed doors of—many workplaces that the public seldom see. Most recently, I have glimpsed what goes on day-to-day within animal shelters. Performing euthanasias is, thankfully, a decreasing part of one’s job within a shelter. That said, regardless of what one choses to do as a veterinarian—whether within a clinic, on the farm, or when engaged in regulatory or research roles—”putting animals to sleep” is a big part of being a veterinarian. I wrote about some of the aspects of what I have seen in a previous musing (see http://one-medicine.com/blog/?p=47 ).

By way of background, two stories and a book:

1)             In the Spring of 2009, my mother died a “good death”, thanks to the hospice movement. If my mother had not died, she would have turned 90 next Friday, January 18th, 2013. While human healthcare providers and Hospice employees are not permitted to administer the legally controlled substances that make up a lethal injection, hospice employees in particular have revolutionized that sacred passage from life to death. Because of these individuals, people like my mother and my father were able to die with dignity and with grace.

2)              I know an inexperienced veterinarian who administered a lethal injection to a healthy un-castrated one-year-old handsome purebred dog that had bit its owner.  This dog had been returned to the breeder, who requested that the veterinarian put the dog to sleep. This story touches on other thorny issue of dog ownership (e.g. “What does ownership permit?”). In an ideal world, the veterinarian would have refused the breeder’s request and we all do everything possible to rehabilitate and re-home this biting dog.

The book that explores what hypocrites we humans are with regard to animals is titled Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. The author is Dr. Hal Herzog. He is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University. He is one of the world’s experts on the science of human-animal relationships.

Euthanasia and how we are blind to how we treat animals differently depending on the species of the animal shines a light on human hypocrisy.  The British House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics defines euthanasia as “a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering”. In the Netherlands, euthanasia is understood as “termination of life by a doctor at the request of a patient”. To mention the name of “Dr. Kevorkian” is to touch an ethical hot-button.

Dr. Kevorkian died of pulmonary thrombosis in 2011. Dr. Kevorkian was known by some as “Dr. Death”.  In 1999, Kevorkian was arrested and tried after he followed a patient’s request and performed a lethal injection. He was convicted of second-degree murder and served eight years of a 10-to-25-year prison sentence. He was released on parole on June 1, 2007, on condition he would not offer suicide advice to any other person.

Today (thanks in part to Dr. Kevorkian) we now categorized euthanasia in three different ways, voluntary, non-voluntary, or involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia are defined generally along the lines of “termination of life by a doctor at the request of a patient” Voluntary euthanasias are legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US states of Oregon and Washington. Non-voluntary euthanasia is defined as instances “where the patient is unable to give their informed consent, for example when a patient is comatose or a child. Non-voluntary euthanasias are illegal. Involuntary euthanasia are defined as euthanasia performed against the will of the patient. These are usually considered murder.

Voluntary euthanasias are impossible in animals, who cannot use written words to request termination of their life.  That said, I have seen many animals that let us know loud and clear that they want to die. Since 1980, when asked “Is now the time to put “_____” (their loved pet) to sleep?”, I have heard myself speak the truth, “I don’t know, but you’ll know when it is time. ‘_____’ (your loved pet) will request your permission so they can pass from life to death.”

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper, 1/17/13.





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