Finding Empathy and Ethics When the Odds Feel Overwhelming
How an hour spent with a dog can align us with our values.
Posted Feb 16, 2017
The autumn of 1985 proved a turning point in my career as a veterinarian, one that reached deep to my very essence, brought me to question my ethics and values, and has since imbued every part of my life: the tenderness I treasure as a father and husband; the connections I cherish with colleagues and friends; my empathy for others, both animals and humans; and the compassion that inspires so many choices I make. As I write down these thoughts over 30 years later, I still remember that fall so vividly.
We had just dipped our toes into the third year of vet school. With a wild-eyed excitement that had snowballed all summer—after two grueling years spent in lectures and labs in a torrent of formaldehyde, microscopes, and specimens—we were finally entrusted with our first chance in clinics. With stethoscopes draped round our necks, proudly worn as badges; manure-stained, khaki overalls and blue scrub suits in-hand; and student-length, white clinic coats (and in their pockets our bibles of notes as well as a small cache of instruments), we could now join the ranks of the upper classmen to walk through the doors of the hallowed halls. Within the walls of the teaching hospital, much of our duties took place late at night—checking on patients, meting out treatments, and scribbling our bleary-eyed notes in their charts, while still keeping up with a full day of classes. Yet twice weekly we’d meet with real patients and clients while senior clinicians, their interns, and residents watched us and guided each step of the way. And, though we weren’t seniors yet, it seemed what we learned in our classes each day took on a grand, new relevance.
While spreading our wings as soon-to-be doctors meant taking on duties we’d dreamed of for years, it also left us in roles that we dreaded. That fall we were plunged into one that was both, the realm of junior surgery. As freshmen we’d toiled in time-honored tradition through a formalin haze amongst well-preserved tissues, dissecting cadavers with meticulous care. Now it was time, as we started in clinics, to apply what we’d learned to real, living beings, before we stepped into the surgery suite. To do so, however, required we first work with dogs who had run out of time in a shelter.
As vet students, certainly, we were well versed with the daunting statistics of pets in this country: 70,000 dogs and cats born every day; 70 million living as strays; 6 to 8 million enter shelters every year; and well more than half of these tragically end up euthanized. Perhaps saddest of all, another 30 million more die every year of neglect, cruelty, and mishandling.
Knowing these cold, hard statistics is one thing, but facing them first hand is quite something else. Putting a few of these dogs in our care on the day they were due to be euthanized there, forced us to take matters personally. For, in spite of our kindness and gentle attention, commitment and diligence tending to them, sterile technique, leading-edge anesthetics, and a crackerjack team of clinicians at hand, in the end our procedures were terminal. Surgery, in truth, even expertly done, once over is painful, takes time to heal, and can challenge both human and animal patients. So, policy, ethics, and above all compassion dictated we would not cause them more pain than if they had been put to sleep at the shelter.
Each week in the morning, well before we’d begin, I could see our class buzzing with anticipation. As prepared as we were from reviewing the texts, going over each step to the finest detail so that once we’d scrubbed-in we still knew them by heart, this time it was us that was holding the scalpel, ligating the vessels, suturing skin, tracking each vital sign, administering anesthesia, and we felt the full the weight and responsibility of caring for those creatures whose lives were in our hands.
At lunchtime, while most our classmates were eating and reviewing their surgery notes one last time, a few of us quietly slipped away to the kennel where the dogs stayed until lab began. Without many words but a look in our eyes which clearly expressed why we each were there, we opened the door and walked in the kennel to meet the dogs we’d be working with soon—to take them for a walk; play with them on the lawn; let them sniff at a lamppost, the bushes, the trees; sit with them on grass and do nothing together; pet them and hug them; let them know that we cared. At times in that hour, we’d catch a glimpse of each other and I saw in their faces what I’m sure was in mine: a respect for the lives of the dogs we were with.
That first afternoon, just before our procedures, while all of us scrubbed and got into our gowns, a few our classmates asked why we came early, why would we put ourselves through that ordeal. To be sure, it was painful, but also essential, to go into the lab. And we did so each week for the rest of the quarter till junior surgery classes were done.
Times have changed quite a bit in the past 30 years. Notwithstanding the statistics of unwanted pets—the millions abandoned, abused, and euthanized—simulations and models now take the place of live animals for training vet students in surgery labs. I still think of those dogs, though, all these years later—the joy in their faces as we walked in the kennel; their simple abandon in that hour together; that soft, grateful look when their eyes would meet mine. And given what was at that era of training, I could not help but choose to spend that hour with them.