Thursday, June 21, 2018
Human Interest

Acceptance gives dog owners clarity with end-of-life decisions

We watched our yellow labrador, Hendrix, die in slow motion.

On Thanksgiving weekend last year, he tripped over himself in the dark and fell into the deep end of my mother's pool.

The clumsy behavior was unlike him. He weighed 100 pounds and could get a crumb of toast from under a side table without knocking off a candle or knick-knack.

But as our holiday continued, he bumped into walls, went to the bathroom in the house and panted incessantly.

My sister surprised my family by announcing her pregnancy that weekend. My mom and I discussed the beginning stages of her chemo treatments. Those priorities made it easy to deny Hendrix's symptoms.

But when my husband and I got home Sunday, I took two minutes to sit and watch Hendrix. His extreme disorientation broke me.

Randy and I rushed Hendrix to the vet the next day. She gave him a full physical, urine tests and blood tests. The sedation medicine agitated his aging body, and we spent five hours after the visit nursing side effects that included an inability to stand on his own, heaving and restless confusion.

What followed were four months of health scares, medical plans, vet visits and one important lesson.

We found out Hendrix had a UTI, which was $353 to treat. We were given a medical plan that included 11 procedures, including "Cytology by Pathologist," "Cardiopulmonary Monitoring" and "Biopsy Lymph Node." My husband and I dubbed it all "the brain tests" because an MRI was included. The total cost was $1,334.

The vet explained the potential for cancer and that we would use the tests to decide if it was possible to go forward with chemo. If not, we would discuss "other options."

At the mention of "other options," my lips quivered as I held back tears. I compartmentalized those two words and asked about payment options.

We left the office with a CareCredit card account, Hendrix's medical plan and a prescription for Tramadol for his UTI and one for Prednisone for internal inflammation.

By early December, Hendrix had made a solid recovery from his UTI. He was back to chasing our cats around the house, taking walks and going berserk over his latest BarkBox toys.

My husband and I talked about whether we should go through with the "brain tests." We worried the sedation would do more harm than good. We did not think his body could handle the medication.

We also could not afford to spend $1,334 just to reassure ourselves about making an end of life decision for Hendrix. After the tests, chemo might not even be an option.

Guilt about not being able to commit to the medical plan drove us to the comfort of denial. We didn't know it, but that cost us time to prepare for the inevitable.

• • •

In 11 years, Hendrix's worst injury had been a bee sting.

He came into our lives because Randy thought a new relationship between two idealistic 19-year-olds needed a large-breed puppy. He was right.

With Hendrix, we were like parents with a newborn. We took him swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico and plenty of lakes, bays and pools in between. We took long walks on nature trails, played lacrosse fetch and romped in snow-covered fields.

Hendrix got to be a college kid, beach bum and road tripper. He was our son, our best friend and then a geriatric fellow.

His loyalty and infectious vitality calmed me amid the chaos of my 20s. He was there when I started figuring out the person I wanted to be. When I graduated college, moved 1,000 miles from my comfort zone, survived the recession, found a job I loved, bought a home and got married.

So we convinced ourselves it might have been a UTI that went too far.

Hendrix got through Christmas and the start of 2016 in stable health. We had to watch his movements to avoid accidents in the house and we kept him comfortable with Prednisone, which also is often given to dogs with cancer to maintain their quality of life. We got him to take his pills in everything from meatballs to Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers.

But in March, he lost total control of his bladder and was walking into walls again. He would pant and pace around in circles ceaselessly. His claws clicked and clacked on our wood floors, creating a constant soundtrack for his disorientating condition.

We were ready to do the tests, to do anything, but during the pre-examination our vet found a mass in Hendrix's stomach. She was confident it was lymphoma and that it had spread to his central nervous system.

"The circling means only one thing — that the cancer has spread to his brain," she told us as a reassuring gesture. The tests wouldn't have done any good.

But having the "other options" talk would have.

If we had done it sooner, we could have started processing our grief and planning for the final stages of Hendrix's life. It was the hardest responsibility we ever faced as his owners. And it was unavoidable.

With our consent, the vet went over the euthanasia decision process. Always empathetic, she cried with us. She was calculated in her medical advice, and that made our decisions easier.

"Once he's having more bad days than good days, you may want to schedule an appointment," she said.

Randy and I agreed there had not been a good day in weeks.

At home, I grabbed pillows and sat on the dining room floor. I hugged Hendrix close in my lap. I looked at his protruding rib cage, white gums and watering eyes and knew he was suffering.

He rested his head on my chest and sighed. I looked in his puppy eyes and cried. I apologized for not being able to make him better. I pet his velvety ears and wondered if he wanted to go on living.

Hendrix nuzzled his head and looked back at me. It was the sort of affection that had ceased.

Later, I made a list of things Hendrix could no longer do:

Fetch tennis balls. Go on car rides. Run, jump and play. Be housebroken. Go swimming. Chase squirrels. Chase our cats. Go for walks. Bark at people outside our house. Wag his tail. Stretch. Snuggle.

I stared at the list. When did he stop wagging his tail and stretching?

I realized all we took for granted and that I would never see him do these things again. It ripped my heart out.

The list brought clarity to all we had already lost. It was the final thing I needed to make peace with ending my best friend's life.

• • •

On the day Hendrix died, I woke up on my living room floor.

Hendrix could no longer make it back to our bedroom, so the night before, Randy and I pulled our futon mattress out to the living room for a final sleepover after feeding our pup a steak dinner.

We spent all morning lying with him and listening to the Beach Boys. The vulnerable melancholy of Brian Wilson's voice soothed my heartache.

When it was time, I got in the back of the car and Randy lifted the dog into the seat. Hendrix put his head in my lap, and I fed him strips of bacon.

At the vet's office, we went to a cozy room with a couch and pillows to get Hendrix settled. The vet came in and told us he would feel no pain. She told us we'd have all the time we needed. That she would administer the solution when we were ready.

During the last six months, my husband and I had abandoned our social lives, slept on hard floors, cleaned up more urine than we care to admit, jumped up at all hours of the night to alleviate Hendrix's pain, administered medication and held him while he panted, coughed and convulsed.

Now we had to decide which moment Hendrix would take his final breath.

I held tissues to my eyes and thought about how most things worth worrying about catch you unaware.

How lifelong love is not for the faint of heart — but that even in death, there can be grace and peace.

So I leaned down, kissed Hendrix on his nose and let him go.

Contact Amber McDonald at [email protected] Follow @Amber__McDonald.

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