Ask the Veterinarian: Letting Go

Ask the Veterinarian

By Dr. Brianne Hagerty, Avery and Bjorn

When I was 15, I learned what “letting go” means:
“Panic.” That horrible deep feeling of fear and shock eating at you, holding you hostage, squeezing your sides and pounding through your blood.

I remember the night my horse coliced like I remember the happiest and worst memories; different, not quite complete. I felt the hot sweat on my horse’s side, while talking softly, questioning him. He didn’t respond with his big eyes. Absorbed by his pain, he seemed to not hear me, to not notice the grain in his pan or the carrot in my outstretched hand.

Colic. That horrible five-letter word any horse owner fears to hear. I did not know at that moment in time what I was about to be faced with; my courage, compassion and maturity was to be tested. I was not ready for the pain I was about to endure.

I remember standing in silence as the veterinarian’s skilled hands examined my horse. “Colic, perhaps just a mild case” was the first diagnosis. We treated my horse with mineral oil and Banamine. I stood with Cricket, holding his head to steady him after the sedation. I felt his breath against me and stroked his neck. Feeling warm horse under my fingers, I watched the moon rise over the black edged cedar trees and felt the world grow still. I told Cricket he would be okay, I told him how sweet he was. My breath and his, both silver in the night air, spiraled into the darkness. He pressed his head close to me, his eyes closed. Tears of worry slid down my cheeks and fell silently as I continued to speak to him, never stopping. I wanted to help him, but felt powerless knowing I could do nothing. I left him at some point in the night, hope still strong within me.

With the first light of morning, I saw the true seriousness of Cricket’s condition. I wanted to walk to the field to find my horse waiting for me, as if the whole night had simply been a bad dream, but everything was horribly real. I faced my suffering horse. For the first time, my hope began to dwindle and grow weak as my horse’s body grew more tired. This was no mild case of colic, and with the hours passing, the only option became clear. We made the trek to the closest veterinarian hospital three hours away with a heavily sedated horse in tow.

After an initial examination, I was faced with the first of a series of hard decisions. I opted for surgery, the last hope to save my horse’s life. I started crying among all those people; I couldn’t stop. With blurry eyes, I kissed Cricket gently on the irregular white star set upon his forehead and looked into his eyes. Did I know that was the last time I would see them looking back at me? I looked deep into my horse and he looked back through me. I could feel his pain.

They said they would tell me how bad it was after they took a look inside. They said they would let me know if they could save him.

Two hours ticked by slowly before someone emerged from the surgery suite calling my name. I followed the vet. Walking down the white hall, I felt I was following someone who knew, who had the answer. The swinging door opened and I stepped into the surgery room. I remember the feel of panic and thinking, I can’t look, but my eyes didn’t look away, my body didn’t turn. I stood facing my horse on the surgery table, the smell of disinfectant gagging me. The vet’s words explaining to me what was wrong with Cricket seemed distant, far away. I understood what they were telling me, I could see what they were saying. The dead small intestines looked dark and black, the color the mind connects with plague and death. I saw so much black, so much pain! They gave me a choice, but I didn’t have to think on it. I knew the answer. I could not let my horse suffer any longer. I stroked his neck one last time, felt the wispy golden tinged hairs of his forelock through my fingers. I said goodbye. I can’t remember if any words escaped my mouth, but I know he could hear me.

I lost a friend that day. I lost my horse, my partner. However, I also gained something.

I realized the importance of compassion and love surpassing selfish human desires. Every part of me wanted to keep my horse alive, but I realized the pain Cricket was in and I could not bear to see that continue. I was forced to see his needs. My horse was suffering, his stoic nature covering the agony he was enduring. I made the decision.

If you have ever loved and lost a pet, you too know the weight of this decision. The pain of saying goodbye may seem beyond comprehension. However, letting them go when it is time is perhaps the deepest form of love.

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