For several years, I worked at both a general practice and at an emergency clinic. I would often have cases that went back and forth between the two clinics. One of these patients was a cat named Hercules. Actually, it was Hercules II. Hercules I had died after being attacked by a dog. Hercules II was almost identical and the family kept a close eye on him. He even went outside on a leash. However, one day he got into some rat poison that the owners had forgotten about that was hiding in a kitchen cabinet.
The owners were able to get him treated in time and after a month or so on vitamin K, which is an antidote to one of the main types of rat poison, Hercules II was back in fighting form. He spent his days lounging with the owners, an older retired couple that loved him very much.
About a month after he was past the rat poison episode, Hercules escaped from the house. When he got scared, he ran out into the road where he was no match for a passing truck. By the time the owners found him, Hercules was almost dead. When he got to the day practice, the vet there initiated treatment and found that Hercules was not stable enough to be alone overnight. The owners were not wealthy, they were not even middle class. And they were retired, so they had no real income. The veterinarian, who knew these things, offered referral to the ICU overnight facility but did discuss his poor prognosis and gave an estimate of cost for the transfer. The owners wanted to go ahead, no matter the cost.
When the owners brought Hercules into see me, I recognized them. They were very sweet, but also very minimally educated. Trying to explain all of the injuries and treatments that Hercules needed to have a fighting chance took a very long time because the owners didn't really have a concept of basic anatomy or biology. Trachea was reduced to "breathing tube," and muscle was reduced to "meat." I tried repeatedly to give them an idea of his chances and the cost of care, even just beyond the initial stabilization. Hercules had to have a chest tube placed and I feared that he might have a pneumothorax caused by ruptured bullae (where the air pockets in the lungs break open and leak air from the lungs into the chest) and a ruptured trachea as well.
I knew that these folks didn't have the money but they wanted to pay with a credit card. I wasn't worried that the clinic wouldn't get paid, but I was worried that the family would have a hard time paying off the credit card company. I was also worried that Hercules would not make it and they would owe tons of money and have no cat.
The first night turned into a few days of hospitalization. Hercules developed new problems and got progressively worse. At each stage, I discussed euthanasia as an option. I knew that even with radical and expensive surgery that his chances for survival were minimal. I tried to explain it to them, but they hung on to that 10% chance of survival. I gave them an estimate for cost of care, cringing while I did it because I knew that they were going to say yes. When I openly discussed euthanasia as an option, they wouldn't consider it. I even offered to keep Hercules completely doped up while he succumbed to his injuries so he could "pass naturally."
By the morning of the surgery, Hercules had gotten considerably worse. His glucose would not remain normal and kept dropping, possibly indicating a septic infection (infection in the blood). He started having seizures and no matter how much glucose we pumped in him or how much valium he received, it kept on happening. His kidneys were failing, which also might have been contributing to the seizures. These things made him a terrible candidate for surgery.
I called the owners and told them to come out at once because I was fairly certain that Hercules would not make it much longer. When the owners got to the hospital, I rushed them back to see Hercules. He was comatose by that time, either from the drugs to control the seizures or the disease process itself. As I placed him in the owners' arms, they asked repeatedly for me to do something to help him.
Once again, I had an internal war going on. If the owners had been millionaires, I would have still given the same advice: euthanasia. But these people, who could not easily afford what we had done already, wanted to go even further. They absolutely refused to euthanize. Their daughter and son in law had come with them to visit. I pulled them out of the room to try to explain what was going on. They too only wanted to press forward, saying that cost was no object.
I left the family to visit with their pet, telling them to alert me if there was a problem. About 10 minutes later, I heard them screaming in the room and ran back. Hercules had another seizure and then started agonal breathing. At that point, I knew that nothing we could possibly offer would help him. I explained that he was dying and offered to ease the passing with some euthanasia solution. This was a last ditch effort to try to help the owners more than it was to help the patient. Hercules was beyond the need for the injection, but I thought that if the owners had some control over the situation, they might feel better. However, Hercules was gone before I was able to leave the room.
Frankly, I was torn. I felt horrible for the owners. I knew they had poured their heart, soul, and wallet into saving their kitty. I knew they felt guilty because their miracle kitty (which is what they started calling him after the rat poison incident) had escaped the house and gotten hurt. And even though the referring vet and I had been totally honest and upfront about the chances for recovery as well as the cost, I personally felt guilty.
I also felt relieved: the cat was no longer suffering and I didn't have to spend anymore of the owner's money in what I felt was a futile battle. I was relieved because I was also tired...mentally tired to trying to explain the same thing over and over again and getting no where. It sounds awful when I write it down.... I didn't resent the owners for either not being able to understand or just not being willing to understand the situation, I was just plain tired walking that line between offering the top plan and making it plain that euthanasia was an option. Looking back on it, I like to think I would have offered the same thing to a wealthy person. I might not have felt quite as guilty about them spending the money, but I would have offered the same thing. The case still haunts me and it colors every end of life discussion I have with clients.