How A Veterinarian's Experience Influenced Her View On Assisted Suicide

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Veterinarian Shelley Fitzgerald with her friends, Eddie and Jackie Parlee.
Veterinarian Shelley Fitzgerald with her friends, Eddie and Jackie Parlee.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate over Question 2, the Massachusetts "Death With Dignity" ballot measure on assisted suicide, is the outpouring of personal stories about our encounters with death and dying that it has brought. We don't like to talk about dying. But suddenly, we're doing a lot more of it than usual.

The stories that have arrived in the comments section of this recent post are moving, sometimes heartbreaking, always thought-provoking. One particular recent comment prompted me to ask the writer to expand. She had written:

The issues raised by this ballot question are faced by veterinarians every day. I can only speak for myself but I can say I have never enjoyed euthanising a client's pet. However, I am glad the option is available. The word euthanasia means 'good death.' Perhaps veterinarians' experiences could provide some clarification.

That rang so true that I asked for more. But first, an emphatic preface: This is a veterinarian sharing her thoughts and experiences, but that by no means implies that she is equating putting a pet to sleep with physician assisted suicide in humans. So please hold those objections. She is, rather, offering an insider's valuable perspective on hundreds of experiences in which families choose to hasten the end of a beloved pet's life. And facing head-on an issue that vets don't talk about much, either. Deepest thanks to Westford veterinarian Shelley Fitzgerald for sharing this:


One of the reasons that the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia are not as critical is that there is less potential for abuse in the veterinary world. The veterinarian has to agree that the pet is terminally ill and/or has a condition which makes it impossible for the family to live with and enjoy their pet. A large elderly dog with incurable incontinence living in a household with a crawling infant would be an example. The evaluation of cui bono (who benefits) is rarely needed.

It is especially difficult to euthanize a pet that one has known and bonded with for years. This is when another of those painful realizations hits. It is not about us, the veterinarians. When I was first in practice, I wished that somehow I would not have to be the one when it came time to put down one of my favorite patients. When I had more confidence and a better understanding of the big picture, I wanted to be there for the pet and the family because I was their doctor and death was part of my role in that pet’s life.

I am glad that Question 2 is appearing on the ballot for a couple of reasons. One is that it has made me realize how taboo these issues are even for us veterinarians to discuss. The other is the opportunity to recall situations where, though the result has been the inevitable death of a beloved pet, I have been able to, by the standards of my profession, alleviate suffering and provide some comfort to the pet owners I have known.

I will be voting Yes on Question 2.

This program aired on November 2, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.