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Know better. Do better.

    • 149 posts
    June 21, 2021 3:22 PM EDT

    Over the past couple of years I’ve had the real honor of working with colleagues and industry experts to produce and host a number of educational offerings on end-of-life topics. It’s been a very enlightening experience. I also have a heartfelt appreciation for the industry partners who’ve supported these endeavors - businesses focused in improving our caretaking as well as the end of life experience we provide for clients, our patients, and those of us doing the work.

    While working on these projects I often took pause to reflect back on personal experiences from my days working in both the general and specialty veterinary care practice settings. I found myself saying “if only I’d known then what I know now.” It wasn't self-criticism, as I practiced as I was taught and observed. Typical of joining any organization or being hired into a new workplace, we all tend (and are expected) to adapt to the culture of that place. Our onboarding usually includes learning about the organization's mission or mentality including “this is how we do things.”

    Working in the trenches – day in and day out – it’s often difficult to think outside of the box. I’ve seen that play out throughout my career working in private practice. People establish their habits and comfortable ways of doing things just to get through their busy days. Carving out the time or space to consider how or why we might do things differently – especially if we don’t perceive a need for change or improvement - is not top of mind. After all ... “if it ain’t broke, why would I fix it?”  Especially if that change might impact your routine and/or cost you a few extra bucks.  Right?!  

    When I first met Dr. Kathleen Cooney - CAETA's Founder and Director of Education - I was truly overwhelmed by her passion for advancing end-of-life care for our veterinary patients. I recorded a 3-part series with her on Euthanasia and the Human-Animal Bond, and during our time together found myself getting choked up on a few occasions - recalling less than pleasant euthanasia experiences from my days in practice, as well as personally - with one of my own pets.  From the onset I knew and believed in the importance of bringing this information to our audience, however the emotional tugs really cemented how vital it was to support colleagues, pet parents, and our patients during one of the most delicate of times - a beloved animal's end of life.  The more I delved into this project, the more I was surprised by the memories that surfaced. 

    Fast forward to this past month or so, and Alexandra Yaksich, AHT penned a 3 part series about the AVMA's new companion animal aftercare position statement. As I read her posts, again, memories surfaced of poor end-of-life experiences I had during my practice career. Aside from the heart-wrenching, sudden death of one of my dogs (and my perception of a poor experience provided by the hospital where she died), I thought back to what "aftercare" looked like when I was in practice (1989-2007). My active years in practice included working in the general practice setting, the university setting during my residency, and then private specialty practice. Without fail, but for the exception and rare instance in which an owner left the practice with their deceased pet, the disposition of dead animals invariably involved placing them in a black trash bag. I recall some practices that I worked at in which animals were not bagged, but were just tagged and placed in the freezer - in advance of an aftercare provider (e.g. crematory) coming to retrieve them. I recall that both of these methods never, ever looked or felt right to me. I never questioned it, though. I had seen this practice everywhere I had ever worked. I guess you could say that it was "standard."

    One of our Human-Animal Bond program sponsors - Euthabag - was unknown to me until recently. Dr. Cooney had introduced me to Dr. Celine Leheurteux - a veterinarian who created this product in an attempt to ante up in how we care for the bodies of our deceased patients. When I first heard about her product, one of the immediate thoughts that came to mind was "yeah, that's going to be a tough sell." Afterall, who's going to shell out more money - especially after a pet is dead? I then recalled an in-home euthanasia experience that I had over 20 years ago. 

    The first pet I owned on my own - as an adult - was a Doberman pinscher. She had many health issues throughout her lifetime and was also a wobbler. I came home on a late Saturday afternoon after work - the year was 1998 - to find her splayed out on the floor, in pain, and unable to rise. I knew that it was time to euthanize her. It was going to be very difficult for me to get her to the veterinary hospital, so I called on a couple of work colleague friends to see if they could help. They came to my place to perform an in-home euthanasia. They were so gracious, so kind. Without any discussion, they indicated they would take her body back to the hospital and place it in holding while I arranged plans for her aftercare. I recall that they gently wrapped her body in the comforter that had become hers, and then before exiting my apartment - to prevent "leakage" of bodily fluids - they placed a black garbage bag over her back half / hind end. It was as dignified and respectful as could be. I watched them exit my place and walk toward the elevator and can still recall that last visual of the black garbage bag. It was so sad and so surreal. And here, over 20 years later, I still vividly recall that visual and experience.

    As I got to know Celine and learn more about Euthabag, I became more curious about the product and asked if they would send me a sample. I received the sample and looked it over - it's simple, aesthetically clean, stores easily, and seems sturdy. I took out a stuffed toy to simulate what it would be like to place an animal into this body bag and zipper it closed. I set it aside on a table and just left it there. I took notice of it several times over the next couple of weeks. The more I looked at it and handled it, the more I realized the impact that this simple body bag would have in the end-of-life experience we provide. The aesthetic of the body bag alone, and doing away with the garbage bag, is a huge cultural shift. It shifts our mindset to one of truly providing a dignified death experience. And this impacts not only our client's experience but also that of the veterinary team. It truly honors the human-animal bond. And yet, it's just one cog in the wheel. The end-of-life experience begins before an animal's death, and the impacts of that experience can be felt for months and even years after the fact. Our pet loss support service is a testament to that - grief knows no timeline.

    One last thought about this body bag ... one day I had set a glass of red wine on the table next to the sample I had received. I accidentally knocked the glass over - red wine everywhere including all over the light grey body bag. I scrambled to do clean up and figured I would now have a sample with red wine stains. Not!  I cleaned up the mess and took the bag over to the sink to rinse it off. No red wine stains anywhere. Nice to know. ;)