Giving the gift of life and friendship

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In reflecting upon my 20 plus years as a veterinarian in Dorchester County, I think a lot about the tough cases; the ones that challenge me and test my diagnostic and surgical knowledge. Then there are those that challenge my spirit – the cases that pull at my heart strings as if to test my moral compass. I met someone once that tried to defend his position that a moral compass did not exist, that it was an excuse that people use to do whatever it is they see fit and to not feel guilt. Not only does this man have a huge hole in his soul, he has no idea what it feels like to call the shots … the life and death shots. These would be the moral and ethical decisions that we veterinarians face on a daily basis.

In late April of 2008, there was a report of a stray chocolate lab Momma dog that had presumably buried her 10 mixed breed puppies under a home. During the rescue attempt, one of the babies was impaled on her right side with a shovel and several days later was brought into the animal hospital for care.

The little baby brown dog was absolutely adorable. She was about 2 ½ weeks old and weighed only 590 grams. The wound on her right side was large and infected. We sedated the tiny little puppy, exercising great care as we sewed her back together and placed her on antibiotics. Five days later, she was brought back. The wound had dehisced or quite simply the suture line had broken down due to infection. By this point she was under the care of a local rescue agency and they just couldn’t deal with a 3-week-old puppy with a severe wound. There were 9 others from the litter and they had countless other healthy pets in need of homes. They brought the little 3-week-old chocolate brown puppy in to be euthanized.

Enter the moral and ethical decision part of the story. These kinds of issues crop up often in the life of a veterinarian. Typically, we put the blinders on, compartmentalize our thoughts and perform the necessary task. But on this particular day, I just couldn’t do it; I could not euthanize that little puppy. Instead I went for a run. I do my best thinking when I run.

I got back refreshed and rejuvenated and called the rescue agency to make sure it was ok that we try and save the little puppy, which they had named “Angel.” My technician at the time was perturbed with my decision, probably because she envisioned the extra duties that would go along with raising a 3-week-old orphan with a large infected wound. This would be a labor intensive endeavor as this baby also needed to be properly socialized. Puppies need to stay with their Mom’s and littermates until 6-8 weeks of age, and then the period from 8-12 weeks is very important for bonding to their new human family. We see so many behavior problems in dogs that were either orphaned or that stayed with their dog family for too long with little human contact. This would be a labor intensive project, my technician was right.

We started the process of daily hydrotherapy, bandage changes and intensive antibiotic therapy. The sweet little puppy was still being bottle fed and we experimented with each of my four dogs to see which could help to socialize her. My big shaggy dog named Woody turned out to be the one with the best maternal instinct, so we began to call him “Uncle Woody” and we also changed the little puppy’s name to “Alice.” She was growing by leaps and bounds and by mid-May had graduated from the gram scale to the pediatric scale. By early June, Alice’s wound was completely healed and my angry technician had herself a new dog.

I don’t know where Alice or my angry technician are now, but I do know a few things for sure. Alice was supposed to die two times – she lived through impalement by a shovel at the age of 2 weeks, and then was supposed to be euthanized when our treatment failed. She grew up to be a happy brown dog, not suffering from any of the typical behaviors that we see in orphan animals. Alice went on to do great things during the time I knew her too. She was a champion dock diver and an agility dog. She served as the muse for a budding photographer and became a steadfast rock to lean on while her human partner went through a major health crisis. In the end she became a best friend for life for someone who needed a friend. In veterinary medicine, this is what I feel best about: not the fancy surgeries that can be done or the ability to diagnose diseases, or even saving lives. It’s the little thankless tasks that involve listening to your moral compass, and doing the right thing. In this case, I gave someone a best friend, and that’s a good feeling.

Editor’s note: Dr. Flaggs is the lead veterinarian at the Cabin Creek Veterinarian Hospital in East New Market.

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