A Mutual Sacrifice of Love
I stood outside the examining room to read the notations on the clipboard, and then smoothed my clinical white coat. “Can’t avoid this,” I muttered under my breath.
After a few quick knocks to announce my presence, I opened the door.
“Hi Barbara – how are your boys? I see you brought Sally in to see me again.”
Sally cowered; her shrinking body language matched her graying hair and cataract-clouded eyes.
“I’m fine, Doc; boys are good. But Sally here – she’s not so great.” Barbara’s eyes turned back to Sally while she continued to speak. “She has another new infection…she’s miserable.”
I cleared my throat and grabbed my stethoscope. “Alright, well, let me listen...”
The old gal’s heart marched through its paces with just a hint of malaise.
“I’d like to do a complete examination and some blood work which can all be done right now, if you have time to wait. Should take – oh, maybe forty-five minutes, total?”
“Sure, Doc…whatever you think is best.”
I’d known Barbara and her family for a long time, but that didn’t make this situation any easier. Pain can seem debilitating for both the patient and the support person - and I was the one to address it all head-on.
“I’ll have some nurses help me, so why don’t you sit out in the waiting room for a while and I’ll let you know what I find out?”
Barbara leaned over Sally’s face and caressed her head gently before standing. “Sure, Doc. Just let me know.”
As Barbara left through one door, two capable assistants entered the other. We gently but thoroughly examined Sally, and then drew two vials of blood for some lab work. She shook convulsively – terrified, no doubt - but only cried out once.
“You’re a trooper - a real sweetheart.”
I left the girls with Sally and went to the lab myself to take a look at the blood samples. Then it was time to call Barbara for a consultation.
Barbara’s demeanor reflected an odd mix of apprehension and hope as she re-entered the examining room. I knew she trusted me implicitly.
I coughed and tried to smile. “Barbara, I have a recommendation for you and Sally.” My voice wavered just a tiny bit, but Barbara noticed. Her eyes clouded with tears.
“She’s lived a full, long life, but now certain complications will only mean more discomfort and debilitation. I suggest you leave her here today…”
I watched Barbara grimace as she processed my words, and I couldn’t help but feel her anguish.
“Doc – you mean – for good?”
“I mean, Barbara, that my best recommendation is to put her down.”
I watched this forty-year-old woman smother the muzzle of her precious twelve-year-old Sally with her own face. She wept openly, without restraint, while her sobs birthed tears that ran down the dog’s face and splattered onto the disinfected linoleum floor.
“I understand, Barb. I do.”
“So…do I…just leave…or what?” She looked at me imploringly.
“Whatever you think is best.”
Barbara mopped her face with her sleeve, grabbed her purse, and stood up. “I think…I should…leave and…preserve the memory…of what we’ve had....”
As Barbara opened the door, Sally jumped to her feet and loped toward her mistress with an unexpected surge of energy. I felt a lump rise in my throat and had to wonder if Sally somehow knew her fate. Barbara tried to close the door but Sally’s nose pushed into the crack and held firm, her eyes wild with fright.
“No, girl, you stay here now…back, girl…you can’t come with me…” More tears, then eye-to-eye contact: “Sally, I want…to remember you…like this…now…give me…a kiss.” The dog’s frantic posture suddenly melted. She relaxed and lavished the cheek of her mistress with a series of licks.
Eye-to-eye contact shifted to heart-to-heart. Barbara’s broken voice whispered something that sounded like, “I love you.” Sally retreated and the door shut.
I went about my business. Within thirty minutes Sally was gone.
I couldn’t make myself send a bill to Barbara. Sure, this episode was a normal part of my practice, and I should have been paid for my professional services. But I felt strangely humbled that day and preferred to chalk up the experience to a lesson in relationship.
The invisible bond between Sally and Barbara represented concepts like courage, respect, trust, and honor. There was no price tag for this example of mutual sacrifice and the healing it brought to my own heart.
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