Her name was Gertie. She was a partner as I traveled this world, always with me when she could be and dutifully guarding the castle when I was away. When I deployed on wildfires, she would protect the wife and children. When we came home from a fishing trip once to find a black bear on our porch, she positioned herself between us and the bear to make a stand if needed. When someone she didn’t trust came to the house, she made sure we were aware, and we would kindly send them away.
She had her vices. We had to monitor her near the woods because she really enjoyed mushrooms—she could consume to the point of becoming ill. She had a natural distrust for teenagers and smokers because before we rescued her she was abused by one who enjoyed burning her whiskers to her nose with a cigarette. She would bark when she shouldn’t and really enjoyed crawling into the bed between my wife and me.
Then she got sick. I was there for her. She was 13, not too old for a Chesapeake/golden retriever mix. She slowly deteriorated, losing her bowel control and being unable to walk well with her hind feet. Every day we snuggled, savoring our time and hoping it would go away. Of course it didn’t. When she began to cough up blood, I knew it was time. The vet concurred.
We scheduled the day and took one last family photo. My wife and I took her to town. She walked with me as well as she could into the vet, where we snuggled into a wall and waited for our turn to end her pain. I feel she knew, but she was so happy I was going to be there with her that when the vet appeared she led the way to the exam room. She felt safe about what was coming because her family was there, and we felt comforted she wouldn’t die alone.
The veterinarian came in and made sure we were ready and fully aware. The tech described the procedure and what we should expect. They asked us questions about her and listened to stories about her life. They petted her head as she sat proudly at our feet. I asked her to lie down, which she did, and the tech performed their least favorite assignment. It only took about two minutes, and I headed home with a couple of mementos and some kind words from the staff about 20 minutes later.
Honored and Revered
The experience got me thinking about some of the patients we interact with. How many times have we gone into the home of a DNR patient surrounded by family members who were saddened by what just happened but also relieved they could be there? How often does a person look at us over the body of their kin, wanting us to go back in time and make it five years ago?
I have been to many medical calls that were basic death confirmations. Some were expected, some weren’t, but in both situations it hurt the people they trusted and loved. I knew Gertie wasn’t coming home with me, but there was nothing more important to me than her story and honor. No matter how prepared you are for the wax of fate to seal the post, you will never be ready for what’s after.
Take the time to talk to the family. You aren’t just there for the patient but also for the people who were part of their life. Ask them for some memories. Let them share their anguish. Let them feel human again and remind them you have the same emotions and fears.
Talk with your own family. Have wills ready; make plans for what happens if you’re suddenly taken from their lives. There are fewer things more stressful to a lay person than being looked at by 20 others and asked, “Do we start CPR? Are you still OK with the DNR?” What about the police officer who asks what to do with the body? Will your family know for certain and agree with your final wishes? They will want to honor and respect your preferences—that is part and parcel of them knowing you trusted them. They don’t want to betray that trust.
My dog died, and everybody I spoke with cared. I felt her passage was honored and revered, and that was important to me. When I respond to a medical call where someone’s family member is passing or has passed, I strive for them to feel the same way.
There is nothing more important to interpersonal relationships than trust, and I don’t ever want to betray the trust put in me by my family, my friends, or my pets. Your caller also wants to protect the honor and integrity of their patient. Don’t just confirm they died, but help the family feel that their memory never will.
Christian Hartley is fire chief for the city of Houston, Alaska. He is a second-generation responder who has worked in EMS, corrections, and the fire service since 1999.