Sometimes It Breaks Your Heart - Doc's 1st Book


(Chapter 7 ~ Sometimes It Breaks Your Heart by Doctor Oz)

People are always asking me why I decided to be a veterinarian instead of becoming a real doctor. When this happens, the first thing I do is try to stay calm, take a deep breath, and no matter what, just smile as big a smile as I can. I make it a point to resist the temptation to answer their insensitivity with the lame statement, “Sir (or ma’am), but I am a real doctor,” because it would only embarrass both of us. Instead, I jokingly tell them that even though I love my fellow humans a lot, they can be a real pain in the neck when they’re sick and that I just didn’t want to have to listen to their endless whining and complaining all of the time. (One exception to this is, of course, myself. My wife tells me I’m a perfect angel when I’m ill.)

Actually, when I think about it in moments of quiet reflection, there are really only two things I envy with regards to my human doctor colleagues: The first is that physicians are able to have nice carpeting and furniture in their waiting rooms. This would not work at all in my veterinary office. I could almost guarantee you that the first dog walking into my clinic the day after the carpet was installed would be a one-hundred-sixty-pound, intact rottweiler who would insist on watering down every chair leg and corner in the room.

The second, and by far the more serious, is that human doctors are not allowed to practice euthanasia. That is, human doctors can’t—at least not yet—put their patients to sleep like we vets can. If you really think about it, the ability to end an animal’s suffering with something as simple as an injection is an awesome responsibility. And mostly, in cases of severe suffering and debilitating injuries, I’m thankful I have this gift as an option. There are times, however, I wish I just didn’t have to deal with it.

Our Suzie was a very special cat. I first met her when I was just a young and angry ex-sailor home from the Vietnam War, doing my best to try to make a living milking cows. My girlfriend—who’s now my wife, Theresa—had originally found the cat in a dairy barn where she had been working the summer before. When she’d first found her, Suzie was just a scraggly little kitten, the daughter of a wild and untouchable mother cat. She was a black and gray short-haired tabby cat with a big white patch on her muzzle as well as white socks on all four feet. She was a petite cat who never weighed more that five pounds. When Theresa and I got married, Suzie came with the deal (as did my very-much-loved in-laws).

As I look back to those hard and endless days on the dairy farm, I realize now that it was because of Suzie that I became a true cat lover. It’s not that I actually hated cats prior to meeting her, I was just indifferent to their presence. Although my wife was her most-favorite person in the world, right from the start Suzie did what she could to become my friend. She would walk by and give me an opportunity to pet her or pick her up, but I didn’t give her a second glance.

But no matter how hard I tried to do so, Suzie would not let me ignore her. As I sat in my chair in the barn having a coffee break or trying to do some book work, she would insist on rubbing up against my legs, wanting both my attention and affection. If I didn’t respond, she’d jump up onto the table next to the chair and just sit there, silently tilting her head to one side or the other, as she gazed at me with her eager little eyes.

Every morning as we did the chores, she would alternate her attention between my wife, who did the milking, and I, who did the feeding. Suzie liked being on the barn floor the most during milking time because my wife would frequently put a few splashes of warm, fresh milk into her kitty dish. When she had her fill of milk, she would amble over and lie on the windowsill, contently watching me as I fed the cows. After the milking chores were done, she would head to the milk house and help my wife as she cleaned the milking equipment. Suzie especially liked getting the excess milk from the bottom of the milking pails. When finished here, she would meander back out into the barn and keep me company as I cleaned and bedded down the cows.

After I was accepted to vet school, we retired from the dairy business and moved off the farm. Suzie, without a bit of difficulty, readily made the transition from barn cat to house cat. Although she preferred being outside at night, it didn’t take her long to discover that if she sat on the railing by the back patio doors, I would let her in when I awoke early in the morning and was making my coffee. She knew that after pouring my first cup, I’d walk over to the refrigerator for the quart of milk, at which time she’d just sit by her kitty dish, silently reminding me to not forget to pour her a small splash of milk as well.

Then, as I sat at my library desk writing a term paper for class, studying my brains out for an upcoming test, or just plain enjoying my morning coffee, she would always be there beside me, sitting on the armrest of the sofa, purring me onward. After finishing my first cup, she would patiently sit by the kitty dish as I poured a second one, silently waiting for me to give her another small taste of milk. Finally, as I sat at the table putting my shoes on and getting ready to walk out the door to school, she would perform this little dance on the kitchen floor until I gave her a few Pounce kitty treats.

When at last I graduated from vet school and started my new practice in the garage of my house, Suzie (and all of our other cats) was there beside me to help me greet my new clients. She would always sit on the far corner of my big wooden physician’s desk—where, I’m sure, she felt she was safe from the many canine patients—and examine, with that curious way she had, all of the pet owners.

As my practice grew and I had to move to an office in town, she resumed the role of being just a plain family cat. She still insisted, however, on being let inside every morning when I made my coffee. It didn’t matter whether it was five o’clock or seven o’clock in the morning, she’d always be out there on the back patio railing waiting for me. And, like before, it didn’t matter at all what I was doing at my desk. Whether I was reading medical journal articles or writing my newspaper column, she was faithfully there on the arm of the chair next to my desk, watching me in that cute little way she had, making sure I did everything correctly.

But, as millions of pet owners in the world all know, one of the more poignant aspects of having a dear pet is that we have to watch them grow old in what always seems too short a time. Our hearts soar with joy—an occasional frustration—as we watch them run and jump and scurry everywhere with the boundless energy that is symbolic of their youth. As they mature and reach the stability of middle age, we delight in their companionship; we are comforted by their nearness to us; and we are touched by their absolute and non-judgmental love. And then all too soon, just as we really get to know them, just when they have firmly worked their way into our hearts, they’re taken from us.

I still remember, even after all of this time—like it was yesterday—the hot August morning I had to put our Suzie to sleep. For the better part of her last six months, Suzie’s vision had been getting worse and worse until one early summer morning, she showed up on our back patio deck almost completely blind. Then, a short time later, she somehow hurt her hip and began to have serious trouble walking. Because we were worried for her safety, we kept her caged up when we weren’t around.

But Suzie had always been a free spirit from the day she was born, and locking her up in a cage, even if it was for her own good, was grieving her more than her bodily injuries ever would. My wife pointed this out to me daily, and in my heart, I knew she was right. I also knew I could end her suffering in a minute, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe it was wishful thinking; I’d seen some pretty impressive patient recoveries over the years. Maybe it was just plain cowardice. Maybe I just didn’t want to let her go.

As I agonized over what I was soon gonna have to do, my thoughts drifted back to the time a few years before when I’d accidentally backed my car over our young, orange tabby cat, Foobtube, as I was leaving early one morning for vet school. I knew I’d broken the poor guy’s back, and there would be little I could do. At school, I got one of my professors to examine him; he agreed with my diagnosis and offered to put the cat to sleep for me. Like all of my teachers at vet school, he was a very kind man. He said to me, “Richard, you should never have to put one of your own animals to sleep.”

Another time, during my last year of classes, our old German shepherd, Brut, had gotten so feeble he could no longer walk. My wife and I, not wanting to let him go, had carried him outside at least five times a day for several months so he could enjoy the beautiful weather and go to the bathroom. As the summer turned into a very cold and rainy autumn, we knew we were going to have to do something with our old friend, but we had neither the resources nor the courage to put him down. One day in school, one of my classmates and I were talking about my dilemma, and he volunteered to take care of Brut for me. And, God bless him, he got hold of some euthanasia solution (I don’t know how, we weren’t allowed access to the drug as students), drove out to my farm, and while I held my old dog in my arms, he gave the injection.

With Suzie, however, none of these options were possible. So, not knowing exactly how to deal with the situation, my wife and I just followed the same advice that I routinely give my clients when they ask me how to tell when it is time to put their pets to sleep: “Just watch your pet closely, and they’ll tell you when they’re ready.”

And so time went on, and it took a little getting used to, but I finally stopped looking out the back patio door for Suzie as I walked through the kitchen to my coffeepot. Instead, I would put the coffee perking and then walk out to her cage in my garage and bring her inside. As I poured my first cup, she would patiently look at me with her now crusted-up, blind eyes as if nothing was wrong, just making sure she got her splash of milk. I would then carry her into my library, and she would sit there on the arm of her chair, just purring and watching me while I worked. Then we would go through the whole routine again of getting a little more milk as I poured my second cup of coffee. She even insisted on getting a couple of Pounce kitty treats as I got ready to head out to the office.

But the quart of milk finally was empty and the Pounce kitty treats were gone, and we at last did what had to be done. My wife keeps two snapshots of Suzie in the frame of our bedroom mirror: One shows her sitting wide-eyed in the milk house of the old farm in the hand washing basin where she always kept my wife company as she did the chores. The other shows her sitting on the back patio railing, anxiously waiting to come inside and help me with my morning coffee. We still miss her so, so much.

Every once in a while, as I stumble from the bedroom to the kitchen in the early-morning twilight to plug my coffeepot in, I don’t know why, but I’ll occasionally stop and look for Suzie on the back patio railing. Of course, all I ever see is our beautiful Finger Lakes cornfields and pastures. And darkness. As I sit here now at my desk, writing these stories, I look over at the empty armrest where she always sat, and I can almost see her there, her little head tilted, checking me out to make sure I do good. I hope she likes what she sees.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Orzeck, DVM.


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