13 May 2018

Death comes in...

by Mary Fernando

She is the first person I have spoken with who has actually killed. 

“Unlike a lot of people, I do kill,” says Dr. V. As a veterinarian, she does indeed kill as part of her job. “There is how I end a life and what it is like.”

She starts with the latter.

“As one of my duties it is a bit of a double edged sword - it is so sad. Euthanasia literally means good death in Latin- I have to concentrate on that. it is my job to stay professional and not show grief. It can build up over time.”

Veterinarians have a very high suicide rate. One of the contributing factors is the result of facing grief over killing animals they are attached to while not being allowed to express their grief. It is their job to stay calm and comforting when they need comfort themselves.

She then moves onto the how she kills. She is describes both how to kill and what you see when death arrives. Not just for the animals in her practice, but for all living beings. 

“I front load sedatives and anti-anxiety meds, so the animal is still with it enough to know their owners are there, but not as aware of the insertion of the IV catheter. We use pentobarbital at 300 times the dose used for anaesthesia. In 30 secs to a minute the syringe is fully injected and in 15 sec to 30 secs they pass.”

“I believe that is when the soul leaves the body. Breathing is slower and slower and then it stops - and I get a feeling - it is a deep stillness and you can almost see an emptiness.”

“I know what to expect and I warn my clients. The eyes will stay open. Even if you try to close them, they open up again. The  animals will urinate and defecate. When calcium is released from the cells, sometimes you will see muscles contraction and the most scary thing is when the diaphragm contracts it looks like breathing. But it isn’t.”

“If this was an overdose of sleeping pills, it would be just like this.” 

Listening to her, I think of the many dogs I have had over the years. How their pain and suffering was relieved by vets just like her. And how it must have worn each of them down. 

I also wonder if any of us can kill - and watch this stillness - the emptiness - followed by the open eyed release of bowels and bladder and the breath that is merely the release of calcium and not life. Can we watch this and not be gutted to our core?

As a doctor I have seen death marching in - sometimes slowly and sometimes on a rampage - and I have seen death arrive. I have heard people say that it was a mercy, for the best. I have said that myself. But here’s the thing, the arrival of death is always frightening. There is no way that you can wipe out a life lived without that. Even if it is for the best.


  1. You are so right. Death is always ugly. As a policeman I saw people die. As a homicide detective I saw the aftermath, witnessing autopsies. When I was young and I hunted, I saw animals die. Alway ugly. Always painful. Always hideous. I stopped hunting. It's horrible watching my cats die in a vet's office or watching them die here at home. They are with us for too short a time. Their eyes lock with ours. Comfort? There is no comfort. They know something is dreadfully wrong and we know exactly what is happening. And then they are gone but never gone in our memories. Maybe that is one of the secrets of life - remembering the ones we've lost - while holding on the ones we have. Older folks like me with mother's long gone remember on Mother's Day the one who brought us into the world. Gone but never far from our thoughts. We remember the joyful times together, mixed with the sweet sorry of loss.

  2. My mother, God rest her soul, was in her 80s, weighing 80-something pounds, suffering from multiple fractures from osteoporosis, and she desperately wanted me to find Dr. Kevorkian for her. Or do the job myself. I couldn't do either. Death is hard, but sometimes life is harder. I thank God - and so did my mother - that the vets could do for animals what we apparently can't do for ourselves.

  3. Throughout the article, I found myself nodding my head. Then I read O'Neil's comment about animals locking eyes and damn, been there, done that, it choked me up.

    Raised in the country, I worked with veterinarians and have given my own charges injections and first aid. While auditing an animal medicine course at Ohio State long ago, I learned why superglue should be in first aid kits long before it was okayed for humans. I didn't know of the high suicide rate among vets, but I can understand.

    Animals often know when we're trying to help them, they trust us, walking demigods. But when we know we can't help… our hurt/angry feelings never leaves us. How much worse is it to take another human's life?

    Politicians who find it so easy to campaign for death penalties to prove how tough they are… how dead are their souls?

  4. Mary, I was a hospital director for many years, and then a homecare director. You have put this so well. The one thing I've learned: be there. As much as it hurts you, be there. Don't let pets or people die alone.

  5. O'Neil - such a moving comment. Thank you.
    Eve - so true. And yet the price...
    Leigh - exactly - how can you kill without suffering the cost?
    Melodie - Be there. I couldn't have put it better. Thank you.


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