I spent nearly 7 years caring for their medical needs. After 20 some years in private practice, I was in a whole new world of veterinary medicine. Apprehensive at first, it wasn't long until I dove into Shelter Medicine. I knew I was lucky. The shelter whose medical department I supervised prided themselves on caring for the animals that came through their doors, regardless of their malady. If they were sick or injured, it was refreshing to know that the first option on the treatment list wasn't necessarily euthanasia. That's not to say that euthanasia didn't happen. It just wasn't the only thing that happened if the animal was sick or injured.
We saved countless lives. The team jumped into action time and again as each new case burst through the door. Some were simple, and some were deeply complex. A lot had happy endings that made myself and the team joyful at the part we played in making that happy ending come true. Some endings were indeed sad though.
My heart broke time and again. My heart swelled and healed time and again.
The hardest goodbyes weren't always the ones that we had spent so much time, energy and effort on. Sometimes the hardest goodbyes were the ones that came in off the street seriously needing to be euthanized because of the injury or illness that had drained them to the last of their reserves. I looked into their eyes and saw desperation - they wanted to be held, they wanted to be loved. They wanted to be released. I oftentimes gave them all of that. And cried. Not because they died, or even that I had to kill them. No. It was because they had gotten to that point very obviously alone. And no one deserves that. While I was certainly grateful that I could be there for them for those last few moments, it was those animals that took the deepest cuts out of my heart.
I was given platitudes by the ton. At least you gave them love in their last moments. At least they didn't have to suffer anymore. At least now they aren't hurting. At least now they aren't in the gutter on the street waiting to die alone.
All of those things may be true. No one, however, asked if I was okay. No one acknowledged the pain it caused me. No one let me know that it was okay to feel the pain I was feeling. No one said - I know it hurts. I know it causes you pain. No one asked how it was affecting me. No amount of classes on compassion fatigue - that simply gave me the knowledge of what that was and told me to go run or exercise somehow or find some way to let it go and move on - fixed it. The message was clear - be glad you could help, and move on to the next one in need. I would move on to the next one and feel the last however many animals whose pain I was absorbing. It would just compound even further.
Those deep wounds took its toll on me. I didn't know until now how vital simply acknowledging another's pain, my pain, is. How much healing could take place if that pain was recognized and called out.
Faced with pain that seemed to wax and wane, but never quite go away, I withdrew. Finally, I walked away.
I am in another world now. A world where detachment is taken to an entirely new level. My connection to the animal is nearly severed. My involvement with animals is solely as a cog in a wheel. It took me a bit to realize it. That's what I am. I am a tool to advance to the next level of care - whatever that level is. Sometimes that's wholly simplistic- I am simply providing daily care with a couple of pills here and there. Then I move on to the next. Sometimes it's as advanced as catheters, lab work - that I never see the results of - x-rays - that I never see the interpretation of - and other sometimes more invasive procedures. Then I move on to the next. I never get to see who these animals are connected to. I nearly never get to see what the outcome is. Except when I'm asked to put a catheter in for euthanasia.
I am beginning to realize it is putting me too far away. Too far away from the animal. I may be right next to him, petting him, but I am not connecting to him at all. I do the necessary thing, and move on. And there is an endless river of animals to move on to.
This a choice I have made for myself for the now. I know it is not sustainable. I am also seeing that this will likely be my exit from this world.
Nearly 30 years of caring and I am about to walk away.