It is with deep sorrow, and through pouring tears, that I write to tell you all that Elsa died peacefully yesterday afternoon about 3:30pm. She was outdoors under the bright blue Colorado sun, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells she loved so much. Elsa was in my arms with Dr. Green at her side.
Dr. Green and I began communicating about her condition and the rough night prior, just after 7:30pm yesterday morning. The pain medication (also doubled in dosage) was not enough to relieve her and she was moaning. When I arrived at the Vet clinic, Elsa’s Dr. Justin and a vet tech rushed out to greet her- drawing blood straightaway. The oxygen chamber was ready and her Dr. Justin carried her so lovingly into what we hoped would make her breathing comfortable and effective. Justin, Sam and I were all there, as well as Joann- a vet tech who had also cared tenderly for Elsa. We were cheering her on, hoping against hope, but the oxygen didn’t make much difference, and we agonized with her as she labored to breathe. Dejectedly, Dr. Green told us her lungs and abdomen were probably so full of fluid (water and or infection) that the oxygen could not displace that. Still, with great hope, he gave her some IV lasix, the diuretic she’d been taking in pill form, to try and relieve her body from the swelling.
We waited in anticipation for good news from her blood work, but the news was anything but good. Despite the high dosages of two antibiotics and all the good nutrition, love, prayers, energy and hope we had all surrounded her with in the last week, as well as the obvious improvement of her external wounds, Elsa’s infection was significantly worse. The logical reason for that would be the spread of infection from her mammary glands, or maybe cancer- but whatever it was it was taking over her body faster than we could do anything to slow it down or stop it. We could no longer be hopeful for her physical recovery in the face of her worsening condition. It pains me to admit, something we all know is true- sometimes, despite all the loving care we can give, bodies are simply too broken to be repaired. Sadly, Elsa’s body had suffered too much damage for too long to be repaired.
After an hour or so, Elsa began refusing oxygen. I kept replacing the hood on her snout but she removed her snout repeatedly, over-riding my insistence on knowing what was best for her. Eventually she righted herself and tottered out to urinate. As Dr. Green said, she was simply too much of a lady to lay in her own waste anymore, and she demonstrated her dignity to the end. Unfortunately, the fluid that kept coming out of her body was not reducing the swelling grossly disfiguring her legs. Her body’s systems were shutting down. The sparkle had left her eyes and I saw in her back and forth gazes, a pleading for relief.
As many of you know from being in similar circumstances, there is no easy way to navigate end of life decisions. I have come to believe that discernment is the hard work of life. And none of us gets a free ride. I hope you, as Elsa’s larger care team, know how agonizing it was for us to make the choice of euthanasia. But our beautiful girl was suffering and we had come together to support her to relieve her from suffering. We had to recognize the obvious. As much as we felt frustrated and powerless to change the medical and scientific facts, they were staring us in the face, literally, in the pained eyes, furrowed brow, and rattled breathing of our precious shepherd with the heart of a lioness. We were not able to end her pain, so we freed her to have pain no more.
Because he is a kind man, Dr. Green wanted to tell the family who brought Elsa to the clinic (and had been calling to check on her condition daily) that he had decided the treatments were not working and it was best to put her to rest. Although he was not legally obligated to inform them, Dr. Green cared about the human family as well, even as he continued to express outrage at the grave injustice it seemed to us was inflicted upon this dear dog. None of us will ever know the full and true story, but he had listened to questions of concern and tears on this dog’s behalf, and hoping there was indeed sincere regret and remorse, and also love, he allowed this woman to come in and say goodbye to “our Elsa.” Surely this was also an act of compassion, and a model for non-retaliatory behavior. The law is there to enforce codes and punish- a Vet has the difficult and sometimes impossible role of interpreting, translating, and care-taking across species. I cannot say enough good things about the communication skills, integrity, and ethics of this young Veterinarian.
When I saw the petite woman’s red and swollen face, eyes dripping with tears, I cried with her, for her, and for Elsa. Elsa, leaned toward her and gave her a loving gaze with soft eyes. Elsa showered no anger or fear of the woman. The woman gently caressed her head as she continued to weep and told me that this dog had been her son’s grandfather’s dog and that the grandfather died 10 years ago. “She’s been with us 16 years.” My mind cannot fathom a scenario where neglect and abuse are not part of naming what happened. Yet I know I see only through a glass darkly (to paraphrase biblical imagery of not-knowing/understanding) and must continue to live with only this partial understanding.
I suppose the truth is almost always a mix of the versions of stories going around. I don’t know or can’t comprehend what happened to this precious dog, or why. But I am sure that when I hold onto anger, it eats up at me from the inside and I become a repository for rotting flesh. Have you seen the film, “The Upside of Anger?” If not, I highly recommend it. I continue to struggle through life as an activist; how do I stand strong against gross injustice but still come from a place of compassion? I have a lot of practicing to do…
I thought that if Elsa could extend understanding and forgiveness for her mistreatment, or at the very least, neglect, then certainly that is what I must do as well. If I had to describe that dog’s emotion (and that’s always a tricky thing to do), I would say she was happy to see the woman and happy to receive her gentle touch. I think dogs teach us so much about forgiveness and hope. Rather then being unconditional in relationship, I think they believe in us, again, and again, and live in hope that the best will come forth and that today is going to be a great day! (sometimes when all current evidence is to the contrary) Dogs pretty much suck at holding grudges, and people pretty much rock at it, and there’s no question in my mind which set of behaviors yields a more wholehearted and worthwhile life.
It did my soul good to be present for that reunion. It was painful, but healing. At 48 years old I must admit, there’s not much I know about life anymore. My middle-aged questions have replaced the bravado of certainty I sported in my youth. Still I hold onto and take deep comfort in this simple fact: neglect and abuse did not have the last word. Even though she was only with us a week~ Elsa was surrounded by love and LOVE had the last word.
Samantha, Dr. Green, and l will say goodbye to this sweet soul at a burial here on the ranch where she enjoyed her last days, Friday at dusk. If you would like to write anything to be read at her service, please do so as a comment on the blog below (rather than on Facebook)- that way those memories of Elsa will remain for others to read as time goes by. Thank you for sharing this brief journey with us.