Monday morning. The young animal doctor knocked on the door of the mobile home, reminding himself to “be professional.” Today was going to be a hard day. A little professionalism would go a long way.
“Don’t cry this time,” the young doctor was whispering to himself. “Crying is highly unprofessional.”
An old man in a surgical mask answered the door. The old man showed the doctor into his dingy home. The doc could see right away that this was your typical elderly person residence: two TV trays, two recliners, sticky notes on every surface, prescription bottles, knitting paraphernalia.
“Where’s our patient?” the doc said, trying to sound a little too professional.
The patient was lying on her dog bed, panting. The dog was honey-colored, the white on her muzzle gave away her age.
The old man knelt beside her. “She turned thirteen last month. She’s a good dog. Loves riding in the car. Ever since my wife died in December she’s been everywhere with me. We eat meals together. She’s my friend.”
The young doctor opened his kit. The physician’s bag still smelled like new leather. The bag has hardly been used. He hasn’t made many house calls yet. In fact he has only recently graduated.
The doc did a brief examination then re-explained the diagnosis, just in case the man didn’t understand fully. An inoperable tumor was killing the animal.
“I understand,” the old man said.
The sound of the old man’s voice caused the dog’s tail to go THUMP THUMP THUMP.
“She’s in a lotta pain.” The doc added.
“Yes. I know.”
“So if you’re ready, we can…” The doc’s voice broke. “She won’t suffer, I promise.”
Quiet filled the trailer like water in an aquarium. A television gameshow played on mute. The hum of a refrigerator. The clacking of a ceiling fan. The old man wasn’t answering.
The doctor glanced at his bag again. Unblemished, with brass buckles, no patina. His mother gave him this bag when he finished the veterinary program, which still seems like yesterday.
The old man remained a statue. He wasn’t speaking. His face wasn’t moving.
The doctor waited since he didn’t know what else to do. Did he use more medical mumbo jumbo to explain? Did he affect a more emotional tone, or would that be too unprofessional? In the end the doc remained quiet.
The old man finally said, “Okay. I’m ready.”
“Yes. It’s the humane thing.”
The doctor removed equipment from the bag. He knelt on the crud-colored carpet beside the dog who was too tired to look at him.
“THUMP THUMP THUMP!” went the tail.
The doctor removed the vial of seizure medication, loaded a syringe, then described the process in clinical detail. People sometimes need you to give them a play-by-play, to let them know what’s going on.
But the old man wasn’t listening.
“It’s okay, girl,” said the old man, cradling the dog’s face. “I’m here.”
THUMP THUMP THUMP!
The intravenous line was attached to the animal’s leg. The doc held the syringe, thumb resting on the plunger, but still waiting. You don’t hurry these things.
The old man was moving his lips but no sound came out. The doctor tried to swallow the lump of clay in his throat in the most professional manner possible.
Eventually the old man gave the go-ahead signal.
The doctor pushed the plunger. The dog’s eyelids closed. The heart and brain functions began shutting down.
The elderly man began to sniff and say, “She was always so good with kids. My grandkids would hang all over her, I never heard her growl.”
The fluid moved down the IV line.
“And when she was a puppy, she was so tiny, she slept on a pillow beside my wife’s head. She was precious. There’s a good girl. Daddy loves you. Ssshhhh.”
There were a few brief muscular movements. The dog’s lips twitched then went slack. Then the ribcage deflated. A large breath was exhaled through the nostrils, like bellows. The dog urinated.
After it was done the young doctor sat unmoving. The veterinarian’s entire body felt heavy, like someone had filled him with gravel.
You don’t go to school aspiring to put animals to sleep. And even though your training arms you for this, it stinks. It’s unfair that such beautiful creatures live so briefly.
The doctor stared at his leather bag, in a trance, remembering the afternoon his mother handed it to him. He had been so excited to heal things. Horses, dogs, cats, livestock. He wanted to deliver calves and foals. He wanted to fix problems. But this…
“She isn’t hurting anymore,” the old man said with a watery smile. “I feel so relieved. Thank you. You’re an angel.”
An angel? What?
Amazingly, the old man seemed peaceful. He looked like he’d just had a yoke removed from his shoulders. He was breathing freely.
It was as though the whole trailer had become ten shades brighter, not darker. It was as though something beautiful had just happened here, not something morbid. Suffering had been eased. And this—this—is why small-town boys dream of becoming veterinarians.
After a few minutes, the boy doctor respectfully left the man alone. He crawled into his Toyota, drove to the end of the dirt road, and threw his car into park. He checked both mirrors to make sure he was completely alone.
Then, and only then, did the young professional allow himself to sob.