LUTZ, Fla., April 22, 2015 — There are few moments that conjure up as much warmth and love as the day we bring a new pet into our lives. He could be just eight weeks old from an AKA breeder, or eight years old from the pound, canine or feline or even equine, it really doesn’t matter.
It is the beginning of a journey between human and animal that affords both tremendous gratification.
Although there may be little bumps along the way–an accident in the house, a chewed barn rail, a misplaced hairball–the relationship between pets and their owners is like no other. They love us unconditionally, they make us laugh out loud, they “protect” us, and over the years there is a bonding that makes them truly “family.”
During that magic, we rarely think about what might be, but at some point, every owner will face the loss of a pet, whether through an illness or simply old age. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, and for years, it most often happened in the vet’s office, under a bright light, on a cold metal table, the antithesis of where a loved family member should pass away.
It was just that disconnect that brought Dani McVety, D.V.M., to start Lap of Love, a veterinary hospice and in-home euthanasia provider, just a short while after she graduated from vet school in 2009.
Having worked in the emergency room, McVety saw how traumatic such deaths were on both the pet and the owner. She found her passion and teamed up with fellow vet school grad Mary Gardner, D.V.M., and the two set out to help pets “transition” in the comfort of their own homes, surrounded by familiar smells and lighting and most important, their loving family.
The service was enormously embraced by Florida pet owners, word spread, and today there are more than 60 Lap of Love veterinarians all around the country. McVety, who still makes occasional home visits while touring the nation for public speaking, took a few quick moments to share her thoughts about a pet’s end of life experience.
Sheryl Kay: A lot of vets have that epiphany moment when they realized they were going into veterinary medicine. Did you have one of those?
Dani McVety: If you ask my parents, they will tell you the story about my first meeting with a horse. They said I was fearless, never balking from the 1,000-lb. animal that put his head over the fence to greet me when I was four years old. I was enthralled with horses growing up, I was just as happy cleaning stalls as I was riding. I was about 12 years old when I realized that I wanted the ability to be around animals and that a job that didn’t allow for that was simply not an option.
SK: So you graduate vet school, and I understand you went into veterinary emergency medicine. That has got to be a tough job. Why go that road? Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier to open a nice equine facility out in the country somewhere?
DM: Gosh, that sounds so amazing in theory. But in reality, not so easy. Although horses are my passion, I decided I wanted to keep that part of my life as fun and not work. Also, I wanted a different type of interaction with my clients, which is why I chose emergency medicine.
In an ER clinic, clients come in with fear and anxiety about the condition of their pet. Whether that condition is life limiting or not, the client is almost always extremely upset. The people-pleaser in me loves calming people down, making them feel comfortable and peaceful. I would walk into a room with no knowledge at all about what was facing me, and I was able to take control of the situation and make everything better for them.
It was extremely emotionally rewarding for me.
SK: At what point did you realize the need for a service like Lap of Love?
DM: I knew I wanted to work for myself, and I wanted to do something that truly changed lives. That’s everyone’s dream, right? My philosophy centers around the human-animal bond and the need for that bond to be as undisturbed as possible during this most difficult time.
I had a knack for helping families come to terms with what’s going on and to decide when, how, why, to euthanize their pet. I knew I wanted the word love in the business name.
The lap part came after euthanizing a little dog in her owner’s arms. It was a tiny little Chihuahua with cluster seizures. She was curled in her owner’s lap, so much so that I had to reach through the blankets to find the leg to give the injection. It was a beautiful euthanasia, this woman cuddling and holder her baby till the end. I knew that’s how it should be–in your home, on your lap, holding your loved one so that they are completely physically surrounded by love as they pass from this world.
Most humans don’t get a death that peaceful.
SK: I’m sure each family visit is a little different, but in general, tell us what happens during the euthanasia visit.
DM: The entire experience starts with a phone call or email if the family is unable to talk. We must provide compassion, empathy, and understanding immediately on that phone call. Picking up that phone is the hardest thing that person has probably had to do in their life. Can you imagine dialing a phone number to schedule the death of your best friend? We don’t take that lightly.
Once the appointment has been made, families receive an email to help them prepare for the appointment. I will always call the family when I’m on my way. We know that sitting there waiting for the knock on the door is incredibly stressful. Upon arrival, I make a point to be as friendly and non-doctor-like as possible. I want the family and the pet to feel comfortable with my presence.
I describe the process and prepare them for the simple procedure, which is quite peaceful.
First, we give an injection under the skin, a mixture of sedation and pain relief and helps the pet feel calm and comfortable in a few minutes. The most common thing I hear at this point is “wow, I haven’t seen him relaxed like this in days/weeks.”
Usually five to 10 minutes later, I ask if the family is ready for the second injection, which is usually given in a vein in a back leg. All euthanasia medication is the same and it’s simply an overdose of a very potent anesthesia drug. The brain goes to sleep first, then the respiration, then the heart. It’s incredibly peaceful, and this is usually the time when I hear “had I know it was going to be that peaceful, I would have done this weeks ago.”
After I’ve confirmed the passing by listening for the heart beat, I make a paw print, write the pet’s name and date of passing in our Eternal Pawprints Booklet, and set aside these items and the container with the fur clipping, so the family has these remembrance tokens when I leave.
SK: Clearly you’re a warm person, Dani, full of love and compassion. So how do you manage the emotion involved with all of this?
DM: There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot in any care-taking profession, especially medicine, “compassion fatigue.” I don’t like that phrase. I think it insinuates that we have the potential of running out of compassion, which I do not identify with at all. I am the source of my own compassion and I will never run out of it. I love what I do.
Almost every family says to me, “What a terrible job you have,” or “You must hate this,” or “I’m so sorry you have to do this.” But my reaction is always, “This is an honor.” And it couldn’t be more true. It’s an honor to do what I do, to help families through the most difficult moment of their life, or at least of their pet-parenting life.
They will never forget a moment of their time with me, and I’m a part of that memory.
How do I handle the family’s emotions? Very gently. Everything I say and do is meant to calmly control the process so they feel supported, heard and in the very best hands possible.
Do I tear up? Absolutely, especially when I see myself or my family in their words or in their eyes. And the longer I practice, the faster those emotions seem to come up for me mainly because as a more seasoned doctor, I’m not worried about my own technical abilities anymore and therefore have more mental space to be present and feel my own feelings.
I also know that families deserve to hear my opinion about their pet’s condition, they need to know I’m making the choice to push that plunger, and that I do not judge them for a decision we all make together. Aside from this, they need their space and they need to know that I’m present with them.
SK: Tell us a little about your public speaking.
DM: My most common talks given at national and local veterinary conferences relate to end of life care and communication: the Art of Euthanasia, the Science of Death, Veterinary Hospice, Communication in the Exam Room, Body Language for Doctors and so on.
Recently, I’ve also been asked to speak for some larger groups about what the world can learn from veterinary end of life care. I hope one day to have a TED talk entitled “Why Veterinarians Will Change the Face of Human Death.”
Vets have discussions every single day with their clients about evaluating quality of life–the how/what/when/why surrounding euthanasia. Helping people through the decision-making process is frankly the greatest asset I bring to my clients. There is so much human medicine can learn from how veterinarians have the discussion, how we evaluate quality of life, how we assist in the peaceful death of our patients and how we cope with the feelings after both our own and our clients’.
SK: Does it ever become overwhelming for you? Do you ever have second thoughts about all of this, Dani?
DM: Never. Not once. What I do is meaningful, it matters, it makes a difference, and I’m so lucky to have found this calling in life.
For more information about Lap of Love, or to find an office closest to you, see http://www.lapoflove.com.