Or, at least, like some dogs. Let me explain.
Our family has had two dogs. The first was a Sweetie, a cute black-and-white rescue mutt. She was actually part of a bribe—I mean, compromise—with my children when we had to move from Seattle to Phoenix for my work. One day my daughter’s friend left the front door ajar. Within seconds Sweetie ran out, into the street, and was hit by car. We took her to the vet. Although she had clearly suffered serious trauma, including a head injury, Sweetie ultimately died on a steel table after being coded for what seemed like an eternity. In many ways, Sweetie died in a manner similar to that of many humans: Sterile, brutal, and traumatic for her and for us.
After Sweetie passed, we adopted Ginger, another rescue. She was a lab mix whose age wasn’t totally clear, but we guessed she was roughly a year old. She was a true friend to our family, bonding with each of us in her own unique way. As time passed, she moved with us from one house, one adventure, to the next. She slowed down at the ripe old age of 14, but in the final year of her life, we noticed it was harder and harder for her to stand. Her bed went from a bean bag, to a pillow, to a small rug. Finally, we ended up putting her in a harness so that we could lift her to a standing position. She would then amble outside, eat, do her business twice a day, and then plop back down on her rug, where she remained for the rest of the day. She later began barking at night. Initially, we thought she needed to go out, but she never seemed to do anything but quickly come back in. Over time, she just seemed to slow down.
Finally, after 4 or 5 months of this, we thought Ginger’s time had come.
Frankly, I was surprised at the large number of pet euthanasia services in Phoenix. After much painstaking research, I ultimately settled on Happy Endings, run by Dr. Michael Fixler. He and a staff member came to our home. They were, in a word, awesome. Dr. Fixler lovingly examined Ginger and diagnosed her with degenerative myelopathy. We had erroneously attributed her slowdown to her hips, but Dr. Fixler explained that this disease was in fact affecting her spinal cord. Degenerative myelopathy, he said, was relatively common but irreversible—from here on, Ginger would only get worse. As he said, dogs have two things that bring them joy: Eating and playing. When their mobility goes and they can’t play, they don’t have much left to look forward to. After a long and thoughtful discussion, Dr. Fixler administered a sedative to make Ginger comfortable. Then, after we were all able to say goodbye to her, Dr. Fixler administered another set of drugs and she passed peacefully. We were sad, but we rejoiced. It was a dignified ending to a full life.
Dogs may have two things that bring them joy, but humans have three: Eating, mobility (independence), and thought. However, unlike dogs, a dignified death in the form of euthanasia is taboo in most parts of the United States. It contradicts much of the Judeo-Christian schema, akin to death panels or abuse. Suicide is seen as cowardly. People demand, “How could you? There is always ‘hope.’”
Hope is a powerful thing. It fortifies us to battle against what often appear to be overwhelming odds. But sometimes, in my experience, hope is nothing more than an empty promise. If we as providers were honest with our patients, we’d tell patients yes—there is a small chance at the end of life you could live on, but we’d be honest about the odds. We wouldn’t sugarcoat the pain, suffering, and indignities the patient would endure just to live a few more days or weeks. That’s why doctors tend to die in while hospitalized at far lower rates than our patients—we know the odds. We hold back a few pills here and there so we have an out in the end.
Choice is something that, in almost all other aspects of our lives, we hold sacred—we expect the ability to choose when it comes to one of our most sacred rights—how we are going to die. Ironically, the people most opposed to big government are often the ones most in favor of government intrusion into our lives at the end. It’s against the will of God. What about my will, my choice? Does it count for so little?
As our nation continues to grey, I’m hoping more places adopt rules similar to those established in Oregon, which give choice back to the individual.
When my time comes, I hope to die like a dog—but like Ginger, not Sweetie.