Kevin…

I’ve been avoiding mainstream medicine, as much as possible, for years. I will only go to a doctor, or take a family member to one, when I want to confirm a diagnosis or fix an injury. Most prescriptions that are offered are either declined or left unfilled, unless the doctor can give a compelling reason why their benefits would outweigh their many downsides.

This attitude and approach is the result of repeated disappointment with the medical industry’s ability to prevent or heal disease…something they repeatedly claim they can do. I see doctors as a resource of information, with limited knowledge and a limited viewpoint. Since I read health and medical books for fun, I have a growing foundation of knowledge regarding various conditions and their treatment options. I consider my perspective and opinions to be just as valid to the situation as theirs; and often more so, since I know myself and my family members far better than the doctor ever could.

It rarely takes long in the course of a visit to realize that the doctor doesn’t agree with me on this point…at all. The doctor is the “expert” and I am expected to “comply” with the doctor’s “orders.” Clearly they don’t know me very well. I will be polite during the visit, ask questions, and get his/her opinion…then go home and do additional research about other options, before deciding how best to move forward. I had never met a doctor who showed me an equal level of respect and consideration, where I could actually voice my opinion during the visit…until Kevin.

The family member who needed care was our 14-year-old toy poodle, Booboo. He had a growing list of health issues, yet every vet I had taken him to either didn’t think my concern about his symptoms was anything to worry about, or wanted to run a bunch of expensive and invasive tests that wouldn’t accomplish anything towards improving his health or comfort level. It had been two years since Booboo’s last vet visit, and the only thing accomplished during that visit was the stressing out of our poor old dog.

So here we were. I wasn’t happy with any vet we had seen so far, and yet I needed some insight into the specific problems Booboo was dealing with. An internet search of local vets led me to a new vet in town…Kevin Toman at Mission Animal Hospital. His website showed he embraced nutrition and homeopathy, in addition to mainstream medicine. I have found that any doctor willing to accept homeopathy as a valid form of medicine has loosened the straps of his medical training enough to allow himself to be open to alternatives. This was a good sign. I called his office and made an appointment.

Booboo’s health issues were quite advanced, especially his congestive heart failure. His cataracts, deafness, spinal arthritis, and dental decay all aggravated his declining condition. We accepted that we would not be able to heal most of these diseases, and instead focused on things that might make him more comfortable…until it was clearly time to let him go.

My interaction with Kevin, his wife Diane, and their office staff lasted a total of two months. It was an experience that far surpassed any interaction I have ever had with anyone in the medical community…before or since. When I made my last visit to his office to pick up Booboo’s ashes, Kevin was working alone at the front counter. After we took care of business, I looked at him and asked if he had any idea how unique he was. He paused, and then joked that his wife would probably agree he was unique, but he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing.

There are several things that made it clear that Kevin sees his role differently than most medical professionals do. He is very open about everything he does. There are windows in his examination rooms and no roof. You can hear everything he’s telling the pet family in the next room, which gives you a feel for his approach to animal care before you even meet him. When he comes in, he drops the “Dr” when introducing himself. He’s just Kevin. This sets a collaborative tone to the visit, rather than an expert/patient hierarchy. He then sits on the floor and listens, really listens, as you tell him about your animal and any concerns you have.

During our visits, information flowed both directions – him getting a feel for Booboo and our relationship with him, and me getting helpful information and answers to questions. If I asked about something he wasn’t familiar with, such as an alternative treatment option, Kevin had no problem accepting the limits of his knowledge and expertise by responding with “I don’t know” …and then qualifying that answer with, “I don’t have any knowledge or experience with that form of treatment, so can’t advise on it.” It was incredibly refreshing, and rare, to find a doctor willing to admit he didn’t know something. Most doctors would give an opinion anyway. Kevin just offered a couple of cautions and left it to me to research more and make the final decision.

My opinion and his differed on a few points, to which he always responded, “We can disagree and still be friends.” That was my absolute favorite thing that he would say. And he meant it. I know that, because it was put to the test during Booboo’s final week with us.

Kevin had prescribed a few medications for Booboo to help stabilize his congestive heart failure and ease the pain of his spinal arthritis. These medications helped Booboo physically, and yet they muddled all traces of his personality. In addition, his appetite had declined significantly, which made it even harder to get him to take his meds on the prescribed schedule without having it turn into a battle of wills.

To give Booboo and me a break, I skipped a dosage on one of his meds. Within a couple of hours, I noticed a slight return of his personality. I then skipped the next one and he came back to us a bit more. It didn’t take long for me to decide to drop more of his meds. After a few days without the drugs, he did a bow-stretch…something he hadn’t done in weeks, and a glimmer of our old, loved friend came back for a bit. Getting that last glimpse of his former self, however brief, was well worth any speeding up of his decline that most likely took place.

At Booboo’s next appointment with Kevin, I told him that Booboo had been off his meds for a week and  explained my reasons for stopping them. This action had caused a worsening of fluid build up in Booboo’s heart, which was a serious backslide of his physical condition. Kevin sat on the floor and visibly struggled with the situation. He looked from his left hand to his right, with one representing his opinion and the other representing mine. He concluded that we were both trying to do what was best for Booboo, but each had different priorities. In the end, Kevin confirmed that Booboo’s condition would continue to decline – with meds or without. We came to a compromise on the medications and I agreed to give Booboo the one he felt was most important.

With any other doctor, I would have been scolded for not following his “orders”… or I would have withheld information about my actions, to avoid having to endure his judgment of my choice. Neither one is helpful to the healing process – whether it’s physical healing we’re striving for or emotional/spiritual healing. The respect Kevin showed towards the needs of our emotional relationship with Booboo, which toward the end overrode Booboo’s physical needs, was something I had never experienced before from anyone in the medical profession. True mutual respect.

Kevin’s final gift to our family, and especially to Booboo, was his willingness to come to our house to do the euthanasia. Booboo was able to spend his last day with us in the comfort of his home, surrounded by the love of his family, until his last breath.

The rest of the medical community needs to get off their high horse and take a lesson. Care of the body, mind, and spirit requires true mutual respect…and an acceptance that the doctor may not agree with the path that needs to be chosen. And that’s okay.

“We can disagree and still be friends.”

Thanks, Kevin.

-Jenne Hiigel

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Last Days…

As Booboo approached his fifteenth birthday, his congestive heart failure took a serious turn for the worse. Combining that problem with his blindness, deafness, and advanced spinal arthritis, it became clear that his time with us was wrapping up. If we let his congestive heart failure run its course, his last moments on earth would be spent gasping for breath and dying in a panic. Not an acceptable scenario for someone so deeply loved.

I’d been struggling with this decision for weeks. My biggest fear was the possibility of euthanizing him too soon…before he was ready…before we were ready. I talked to Chuck and our three grown children about their feelings and concerns. We all came to the same conclusion. When the time was right, we would know. If we had any doubts, then it wasn’t time yet.

What we want, and what we know is right, are often two very different things. I wanted to be able to help Booboo get better, but as his health continued to decline and all glimpses of his personality were overwhelmed by his failing body, I soon had to face the fact that it was time to let him go…for his sake, far more than for ours.The rest of the family sadly agreed.

The date and time were set. Our vet, Kevin, agreed to come to our house. This was a true example of Kevin’s complete understanding of the loving bond between humans and their animal companions. I am deeply grateful that he was willing to do the euthanasia at our home, and I know that Booboo was grateful as well.

The night before his last day, we had a picnic dinner with Booboo on our living room floor, while we watched a movie together. It was our last supper with him. A celebration of our time together and the start of our goodbyes. Booboo’s appetite had waned significantly in the past week. It was becoming quite a challenge to get him to eat at all. Our daughter Carolyn, who lived in town, brought cheese and speck for the picnic…which peaked Boo’s interest a bit.

The chosen movie had a picture of a human brain in the shape of a dog on the cover. “Wrong” was about a man desperately searching for his lost dog. It was a very strange movie, yet entirely appropriate for the situation. Booboo cuddled on our laps and snacked with us here and there, as we all basked in the moment.

That night Booboo had trouble sleeping again, due to discomfort from his troubled body. Although I was already pretty exhausted from disrupted sleep during many previous nights, I was able to approach this one differently. As our last night together, I would stay up with him for as long as he needed me. A couple hours later, we were able to settle back down to sleep.

On Booboo’s last day, he was not left alone. I brought him with me to work, so I could take care of a few tasks and then take the rest of the day off. People were surprised when I explained that this was Booboo’s last day. That he would be leaving us at 5pm. But then they looked straight at him, petted him gently, and said their goodbyes. We don’t always get the opportunity to say goodbye. When it happens, it should be appreciated and treasured.

Boo and I walked downtown a bit. Actually, I did the walking. His blindness, deafness, and tendency to walk in compulsive circles made it impossible for him to go on walks anymore. So I carried him. We stopped by one of his favorite parks. I put him in the sand of the volleyball court, which used to trigger an immediate need to dig…but not anymore. He stood there confused. I gently picked him up and we headed home.

For the next couple of hours, Booboo and I lay on the couch together, with him on my chest, sharing the warmth of our love and saying our wordless goodbyes. At about 4pm, Carolyn arrived and took over the Boo cuddling. At 5pm, Chuck got home…and shortly after that Kevin arrived.

The first injection was a general anesthetic to make Booboo unconscious. As the drug took effect, we held him close and showered him with our love. Booboo was then laid next to me on the couch, and Kevin gave him the final injection to shut down his poor, tired body. A few minutes later he was gone. His spirit released. No longer in pain.

Chuck sent a text to our out-of-town kids that said, “Hey, hey, Booboo! Let’s go get us some pic-a-nic baskets.” Booboo was now free to do just that.

-Jenne Hiigel

First Days…

We thought we would be firm. We thought we would be able to teach our new puppy to sleep downstairs on his own. We are the humans. He is the dog. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Or so we thought.

After bringing our new puppy home, we made up a bed for him in the kitchen. Our three kids and I took turns sleeping near him or with him, in an attempt to help him feel more comfortable in his new surroundings. After a couple of nights of this, it was time to work on a more long-term solution. My longing for a full night’s sleep was becoming quite compelling. It was time to be firm. Kids in their own bed, me in mine, and the puppy in his. I put the pup in his bed and said good night.

It didn’t take long for him to start crying. Cries of loneliness, fear, and abandonment. He was barely 9 weeks old. Taken from his mom sooner than either of them cared for. Separated from his sister at the pet store…the only family bond he had left. And now he was in a strange house with strangers, who have abandoned him to sleep alone , in an empty room, through the dark, lonely night.

The puppy seems to like being with us, I thought while lying in bed listening to his cries. He’ll get used to sleeping on his own. That will never happen if I give in now. But he likes being held, cuddled, and comforted. He just wants to be with us. To not feel so alone. He’s so small and so young. Give it a bit longer and see if he settles down. Dum dee dum dee dum. Nope. I can’t just let him cry. What if he wakes the kids? He’s still getting to know us. Still adjusting to his strange, new home. He sounds so sad! How long has he been crying? Only five minutes. Yikes! This is going to be a long night.

I went downstairs. He was SO happy to see me. What a welcome for someone he just met a couple of days ago, and had only been apart from for five minutes. I picked him up and took him to the couch. If I sleep with him on the couch, it’s not like I’m giving in. The couch is different from our bed. He’ll know that.

It took a little while for him to settle down, but soon he was cuddled next to me. What if I roll over on him? He’s so darn little…just 1-1/2 pounds. I’ll have to learn to be cautious. To be aware of him even when I’m asleep, or when I’m just waking up. My mom-radar is already switched on for the kids. I’ll just fine-tune it to include puppies. Sleep soon happened for both of us, but it wasn’t a restful night for me. The couch is not my preferred bed.

As we approached bedtime on the next night, I wasn’t thrilled about sleeping on the couch again. My fatigue was a growing issue that needed addressing. And so, a decision was made. I needed a decent night’s sleep. The way to achieve that was to give this young puppy what he so desperately needed…comfort, contact, and a sense of security. Booboo, who now finally had a name, would be sleeping with us. And so it went for the next fifteen years.

Chuck says that this was the first reality-check for him regarding the dog. The awareness that this puppy might end up being our dog, rather than the kids’ dog. Years later when the kids grew up and moved out, one-by-one, and didn’t take Booboo with them, his suspicions were finally confirmed. I, on the other hand, knew from the beginning that Booboo would be with me and Chuck for the distance. As much as he was a family dog, the long-term bond was between Booboo and me.

As Booboo settled in, we began teaching him things that were necessary for us to get along well together. Things like doing his piddles and poos outside or on the newspaper, not biting too hard when playing, and not barking excessively. At the same time, we realized that he was teaching us as well…bedtime for him was 9pm, don’t play too rough, remember to fill his water dish, and take him along when we go on an outing. As the years went by, it became difficult to say for sure who was teaching whom. Knowledge and learning was happening both ways. Did we teach him or did he teach us? Regardless of the direction of the lesson, learning was definitely happening…and in hindsight, it was I who benefited the most. Some of the lessons were direct from Booboo to me, and yet many more were indirect, through shared experiences and challenges that I would not have encountered without him.

A definite bond has evolved between dogs and humans. It got its start some 50,000-ish years ago when dogs agreed to be the first domesticated animal. When a dog joins a human family, he takes his place within the pack and strives to achieve and maintain a strong, positive relationship with his human companions. Dogs have learned to trust, depend on, collaborate with, protect, and love their human families. And just as each human has individual needs, quirks, personality traits, and a unique perspective on life and its situations, so do dogs. We can learn much from each other, if we take the time to see the world through the other’s eyes

The lessons that will follow are about commitment, respect, play, communication, differing perspectives, nutrition, attitude, forgiveness, healthcare, aging, change, death, grief, and above all else…love.

-Jenne Hiigel