The Young Doctor

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.

“Over here.”

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.”

Be professional.

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.”

“You’re sure?”

“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.

54 comments

  1. Marge Clark - March 2, 2021 6:11 am

    Just beautiful. I am living with two elderly dogs. I hope they can pass as calmly and peacefully as this.

    Reply
  2. Christina - March 2, 2021 6:34 am

    What a skilled storyteller you are, Sean! I felt like I experienced everything that young doc felt. And the deep love the old man had for his gal… heartbreaking but oh so moving.

    Reply
  3. Bob E - March 2, 2021 6:34 am

    Touching…and I’m sure typical and accurate.
    God bless animal lovers and caregivers.

    Reply
  4. Brenda - March 2, 2021 8:00 am

    I’m facing this very thing. My girl is a 16 yr old black lab mix. Almost totally grey now in the muzzle area and ears. A question nobody can answer is how do you know when it’s time? It’s a struggle to worry about her being in pain. I can tell she is failing but she’s eating good. The vet says she’s still doing good for her age, but I don’t want her to be in pain. She’s a real sweetie but it’s a very hard decision to make. I’ll be with her in the end even if I cry my eyes out afterwards, she will feel my love until she crosses the Rainbow Bridge. 😢

    Reply
  5. Mark D MACINTYRE - March 2, 2021 8:08 am

    I have an 18 year old rescue retriever mix named Josie sleeping on the bed next to me right now. I know that day is approaching but oh how I dread the thought. We certainly don’t get to keep them long enough for the amount of love they give us.

    Reply
  6. Ann - March 2, 2021 9:40 am

    Beautifully human and bittersweet…

    Reply
  7. Judy Elledge - March 2, 2021 10:38 am

    We have a vet that has helped us with 2 dogs passing(Maggie and Sophie) and both times he was so caring for us and our pet. He also sent a donation in honor of them to Mississippi State Veterinary School (his alma mater). We love our vet.

    Reply
  8. Leigh Amiot - March 2, 2021 11:48 am

    RIP Maggie 2009-2020
    She isn’t hurting anymore either.

    Reply
  9. joan moore - March 2, 2021 11:54 am

    Thank goodness for good veterinarians And good writers…

    Reply
  10. Jo Ann - March 2, 2021 12:04 pm

    I’m so thankful we have vets that can ease the suffering of our 4-legged family members. I’ve been through this several times & it never gets easier, but, they give us so much love, it’s worth the pain we feel in our hearts. That’s where their memories will be with us, always, in our hearts.

    Reply
  11. TJ - March 2, 2021 12:16 pm

    We just had to go through this two weeks ago with one of our two cats who was 16. He told us he was ready as he had a stroke and while it was the fifth time we have had to do this, it is never easy. You just have to tell yourself that he was ready and no longer in pain. Beautiful article, Sean.

    Reply
  12. Becky Kaufman - March 2, 2021 12:22 pm

    Champ is 16 — and the average life span of a Golden Retriever is 10. He’s almost completely deaf now, but barks constantly at things we cannot see or hear. we got him 11 years ago from a rescue — he had been left alone in a back yard for 5 years and his former owner dumped him at his vet saying he did want him because he had started climbing over or digging under the back yard fence. Champ loves to ride in the car and goes with us whenever it is possible. He is the sweetest dog — very cuddly, and loves to hold hands (paw). In many ways he reminds me of a song we learned in elementary school “Old Bonebags, Old Bonebags, my toothless old hound. He barks at the prowlers till they come around. He shies at the rabbit ; he’s scared of the dove, but he comes running to me with eyes full of love.” Until this past Christmas, his favorite toys were monkeys; but he got a baseball sized duck and it rarely leaves his side.

    Reply
  13. Jean - March 2, 2021 12:25 pm

    Crying….just had to have my sweet little calico put down. It never gets easier…and you miss them so but we cannot be selfish and let them live in pain. Every pet own reading this post will be crying.

    Reply
  14. Tamara Gabbard - March 2, 2021 12:33 pm

    I just read your last three posts since I was busy yesterday. Get my day started you know. Then this. How dare you! All funny and cheery and then the lesson comes in. Any way, great stuff here. Getting my story telling bones cracking. Love your blog!

    Reply
  15. Cyn - March 2, 2021 12:57 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  16. MARGARET Ruth KLARNER - March 2, 2021 1:20 pm

    Tears

    Reply
  17. Mitzi Privette - March 2, 2021 1:44 pm

    When we had to put our sweet rescue dog down the Vet’s tears were comforting. He had known Max longer than us having treated him with the first family. Max’s owner died when he was 13 and the circumstances that brought him to our home are amazing. Two years later we put him down and the vet came to our car. Riding in the car was Max’s happy place so we made it his final memory

    Reply
  18. Lauren D Ulrich - March 2, 2021 2:04 pm

    Me, too~

    Reply
  19. Melanie - March 2, 2021 2:17 pm

    For all our beloved pets and those who love and care for them. We will all meet again at the Rainbow Bridge. 🌈❤️

    Reply
  20. Naomi Storey - March 2, 2021 2:21 pm

    Our last dog was a full-blooded West Highland Terrier that someone had dumped at my husband’s aunt’s farm. She had called the pound but they hadn’t arrived yet, so she just wanted us to look at her. I really didn’t want to look at her because our last dog, which was a black Cocker Spanie that had been killed by a pack of dogs, and I hadn’t gotten over him yet, but I didn’t think there was any harm in looking at this Westie. Well, that was all she wrote; she was beautiful and took to me immediately. She didn’t have a collar or tags, and she needed a bath. After I gave her a bath, I took her to the vet to get her shots and get her spayed. She was already pregnant, and the vet said that she was about a year old. She was one of the sweeetist and smartest dogs I had ever had. She lived an additional 17 years. After losing her, I decided that I couldn’t go through that again, so my husband and I decided not to get anymore dogs.

    Reply
  21. Connie - March 2, 2021 2:28 pm

    You have my eyes leaking all over the place. I think that just be the hardest part of a vet’s job, but God gave them an extra ounce of compassion. I sat with my mother in law when a kind veterinarian came to put her companion at rest, and she was much like the gentleman in your story. She was stoic and heartbroken but fully aware that it was the best thing for her much loved friend. Thank you for sharing a beautiful story of love and kindness. God bless.

    Reply
  22. Naomi Storey - March 2, 2021 2:32 pm

    My daughter and her husband have a dog named Margo. Her mother had just had a litter when she decided to play in the highway instead of the 10 acres of land that they had and got hit by a car. Her babies weren’t even weaned yet, so they had to hand-feed them. They kept the runt and named her Margo. The mama dog was attached to my daughter, but Margo was attached to my son-in-law. Every time he went outside, Margo would start pacing the floor. If he was gone too long, my daughter would have to call her husband on the phone so that he could talk to Margo. One time, he was with some of his buddies when they overheard him talking to Margo. When he got off the phone, they said, “We know that you don’t cheat on your wife, but who is this Margo dame that you are talking to?” He had to explain that it was his dog. Margo is about 5 ft. tall if she stood on her hind legs, but she thinks that she is a lap dog. As soon as my son-in-law sits down, she jumps into his lap.

    Reply
  23. Steve Winfield (Lifer) - March 2, 2021 2:33 pm

    We can only hope he got another. So many dogs out there that need him.
    My two are a spoiled mess but i can’t imagine life without a dog friend.
    God bless this kind doctor.

    Reply
  24. Iris Hamlin - March 2, 2021 2:55 pm

    My tears are flowing. I’m 75 years old and found a half starved puppy someone had discarded on the side of the road. After passing him three times, my husband said he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t get him. A year and a half later, Patch weighs somewhere around 80 pounds. He’s a handful but so sweet and loving. My greatest fear is outliving him and wondering who would care for him and treat him in such a loving way when his time comes.

    Reply
  25. Nana - March 2, 2021 3:05 pm

    Felt all of the emotions through your words. We said goodbye to our sweet 13-year-old Gracie Jean in March 2020. What a month. What a year.

    Reply
  26. Julie - March 2, 2021 3:11 pm

    The old man in the story said to the vet “Thank you. You’re an angel.”
    This reader says to Sean “Thank you. You’re an angel.”
    ❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌⭕️❌

    Reply
  27. Judy - March 2, 2021 3:18 pm

    Please, next time? Give us a warning to have the tissues ready… I had a bulldog that helped me raise my two kids and when I had to have her put down, our vet came to our home, sat on our kitchen floor and gently did his job. He cried right along with me. God bless those vets who have to do the merciful things and their hearts break a little, too.

    Reply
  28. Jan - March 2, 2021 3:27 pm

    So now I am sobbing too …

    Reply
  29. Nikki Wright - March 2, 2021 3:29 pm

    Beautifully done.

    Reply
  30. Jim Barry Morris - March 2, 2021 3:34 pm

    Been there, more than once…that was as close to being there, as I have ever been…thank you…well done, Sean

    Reply
  31. Linda Holmes - March 2, 2021 3:48 pm

    How vividly I remember the day we had to put Willie down eight years ago. He had me for sixteen years and he had been a crazy Jack Russell that I so loved. When he was about seven, he became blind due to a gene associated with a broken coat (not short hair but only fringe on his legs, ears and face.) Some family and friends automatically thought I would have him put down. No way. He became an inspiration, never felt self pity and lived a full life. 💔❤️

    Reply
  32. Karen D. - March 2, 2021 3:53 pm

    Oh Sean….here I am, crying at work! What a touching story! I have a sick dog at my house right now. He is only 14, and has seen me through more tough times than I care to remember. Loving me every step of the way. He can’t jump up on my bed anymore and I miss him sleeping next to me every night. So now Bobby’s bed is right next to mine. Sometimes I trip over him when I get up in the middle of the night, he just shakes his head and wags his tail at me. We will be at this point soon and it breaks my heart just thinking about it. Thank you for capturing the old man’s reaction, one of peace. I hope I can feel that way when it is time for my precious baby to move on.

    Reply
  33. elizabethroosje - March 2, 2021 3:54 pm

    that’s lovely Sean. When my cat Cleo was put down (I was right there with her) my tears were falling and when I took her back home (to prepare her for burial at my friend’s place as we have no land but they did) I sobbed harder that I ever have in my life. We don’t have a cat now (or any other pet) but I will never forget how much Cleo meant to me and the comfort she brought me (and laughter!) every day. She was such a beautiful cat. I learned a lot from her! Enjoyed your post as always. On another topic, congratulations on your new novel being out today! I really loved it and found it to be a wonderful, exciting, humorous, delightful and an absorbing read. Thanks for giving us such sunshine to read Sean!

    Reply
  34. James Marshall - March 2, 2021 4:15 pm

    God bless the folks that help us at these times. So sad to say goodbye to our furry friends, but sometimes we must do the more humane thing.

    Reply
  35. Helen De Prima - March 2, 2021 4:23 pm

    So real! My husband is a vet and had to perform this service many times in his career. And I had to administer the fatal dose more times than I like to remember during my twenty-five years doing wildlife rehab. Never gets easier, even when it’s the kindest choice.

    Reply
  36. Eric Colby - March 2, 2021 4:35 pm

    Anyone who has been through putting a pet “down”, knows the feelings of which Sean writes so well. It remains one of the saddest days in your life. Eventually, you get over it, but you never forget. I don’t think of my dogs and cats every day. But there is no day that I can’t remember them, from the time I was eight, until today at 76. For me, if there is a life and heaven hereafter, it will include those pets of mine.

    Reply
  37. DiAn - March 2, 2021 6:06 pm

    Thank you, Sean. We need to hear this side of each story. Keep it up, dear friend!

    Reply
  38. Sue Rhodus - March 2, 2021 6:10 pm

    My heart is hurting..tears..and love overflowing..beautifully written.

    Reply
  39. Linda Moon - March 2, 2021 7:22 pm

    Crying might be unprofessional, but it is highly human. As I was reading this I became highly human. A professional veterinarian and I heard my beloved Pyper as he gave his last howl, telling me good-bye. His pain was over. When I left the Vet’s office, a childhood friend who just happened to be there…..just HAPPENED to be….joined me in the parking lot and sobbed with me as we sat on the curb together. I bet the professional was sobbing, too, privately there inside his clinic for animals.

    Reply
  40. James McClure - March 2, 2021 7:59 pm

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
  41. Sue Cronkite - March 2, 2021 9:09 pm

    Heartrending and heartwarming.

    Reply
  42. Frances D Lester - March 2, 2021 10:27 pm

    Thinking of our dear, departed Dr. Henry B, who was the soul of kindness to animals and people! Saying goodbye is always hard, almost as much for animals as people.
    Prayers for that young doctor as he learns to care for his animal
    and human patients!

    Reply
  43. MAM - March 2, 2021 11:57 pm

    And I cried along with he young veterinarian, even when he was holding it in.

    Reply
  44. Sue Murphy - March 3, 2021 12:30 am

    Tears

    Reply
  45. Dawnie B - March 3, 2021 12:36 am

    Thank you to the new young veterinarian who chose the path he did. ❤ We appreciate your caring & tender heart, and after a few years, we know you will become more able to handle it. However, I pray you never get to the point where it doesn’t touch you.
    God bless you in your future!

    Reply
  46. Heidi - March 3, 2021 2:32 am

    Our kind vet came to our home to help our old lab, Sailor, cross to the other side. Three weeks later he made it to our front porch, not in time, to help my girl, Gracie Lou, pass as she died in my arms. He witnessed great grief and sobs and was so kind. His whole office staff sent condolences and they were heartfelt. Truly angels.

    Reply
  47. TrixC - March 3, 2021 11:31 am

    Every pet owner knows this pain. Thanks for reminding me how challenging but uplifting that we can ease the suffering and pains of out beloved pets. If only it were legal for our humans who suffer needless pain and agony.

    Reply
  48. Sandy Burnett - March 3, 2021 5:06 pm

    Sobbing with him.

    Reply
  49. Michael Bishop - March 3, 2021 8:17 pm

    We’ve had this experience too, Sean. On a somewhat different note, Jeri and I would like you to know that every time we encounter the adjective “elderly” in one of your pieces (which is quite often, by the way) we rightly or wrongly think you’re giving us an oxymoronically silent shoutout. And I think that, over time, Jeri has come to realize that the word is not necessarily, or even generally, a derogatory adjective but a neutral one specifying significant age, either in body or in attitude. So I’m glad to note that, despite our elderliness (or maybe because of it), your columns often give us cause to sob . . , cathartically, not critically. So thanks again for a well-told, moving story.

    Reply
  50. Linda - March 7, 2021 3:41 am

    Reading this brings tears to my eyes. We said goodbye to our baby a few days before Christmas. The night before we took her to the vet, I wrote this poem she “channeled” to me to our vet. Just because we have other dogs, doesn’t mean our hearts don’t break. Thank you for letting me share.

    Etaine letter to Dr Bowe

    I know I’m getting old
    And my moxie isn’t so bold
    Mom and Phil are worried and sad
    Because they no longer tell me I’m bad.
    But they really need me,
    I’ll explain and you’ll see.
    All the other dogs are just plain useless.
    Gracie thinks she’s a Princess,
    Aine is afraid of the rain,
    And Jack can be a real pain.
    But what can you expect from a boy?
    Then when a truck goes by, Hershey won’t bark just brings a toy.
    Phil thinks he the boss, this has gone to his head.
    But I have to tell him to go to bed.
    I lay by mom while she paints and writes
    I want to tell her I’ll be all right.
    So when you read this letter,
    I hope you will can make me feel better
    And come up with a plan
    So I can stay with them as long as I can.

    Reply
  51. B. Authement, DVM - March 8, 2021 3:58 am

    so very true from a veterinary standpoint. It hurts every time, even if it is the the best thing to do to prevent suffering, even it it is the 10 thousandeth one….

    Reply
  52. Jacquelyn Fossett - March 13, 2021 12:54 am

    About a month ago, I lost my beautiful Golden Doodle who was not four years old to a brain tumor and I am devastated. I am soo lonely for a doggie baby. She was my cuddle bunny and a gentle loving dog. My husband didn’t cuddle her, but he was a patsy at plying her with dog treats after I went to bed. She knew we didn’t want the squirrels to eat the bird seed so she was the official guardian of the bird feeder; the birds seemed to know that she cared for them. What a blessing she was to my husband and to me. She escorted him to bed each night feeling she needed to guard her treat giver. Before Ellie I had had two marvelous Golden Retrievers Abe and Charlie and I lost them three months apart. Abe was my protector and would stand between me and anyone who knocked at the door until he could determine if they were suitable to be at our house. He gave me a hug where he could hear my heart for he never forgot that I held his head next to my heart and promised I would take care of him, be his Mother and love him all the days of his life. He seemed to know I loved him like a baby.

    Mr. O’Charlie McDougle was 17 and started going down when his buddy Abe died; the signal was he just quit eating. We took a ride to the vet and he reminded me that Charlie was 17. Charlie heard our conversation and sat up and tapped me with his paw and then he shook my hand. He was saying “good-bye and I love you” and he took his glory shot and was gone, what a beautiful, silky, kind loving soul he was to us. If ya’ll are praying folk, please pray the next dog will come to us soon
    Jacquelyn Fossett
    Kentucky

    Reply
  53. Suzi - March 14, 2021 7:03 pm

    What would I do without my Lily

    Reply
  54. Jacquelyn Fossett - March 20, 2021 3:54 pm

    Well, to you praying folk, thank you! We ended up at the Tri-County Animal Shelter last Saturday, we could no longer go without a dog and were hesitant to invest in another Golden Doodle, for fear of over breeding. My Dad had said to me in years past “There is another dog who needs your love” so here we were about to make a big doggie commitment. Besides, there was a lurking doggie hole in my heart which needed filling, yet it was my husband who said “Let’s do it” and off we were! Now, we have a 5-7
    month old pup who is a chewing machine, that springs a leak occasionally; so we are taking up area rugs, sitting when only when armed with rawhide or dental bones, knowing that someday she will be a gentle dog who gives us love and with every lick or cuddle says “Thanks for choosing me to fill the doggie hole”. Posted by Jacquelyn Fossett

    Reply

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