Wednesday, February 06, 2013

“We’re talking about a hamster, for God’s sake!”

Janice Lynch Schuster of the Altarum Institute has written a warm and delightful article for Aging Today, the newspaper of the American Society on Aging.  It's called "Goodbye to Jumpy: Lessons for the health system."  Using the example of the family's pet hamster, she draws some good lessons about end-of-life work.  Excerpts:

In the early days of what would prove to be, in hamster years, a long illness, Jumpy just didn’t look right: his ears were swollen and he scratched incessantly. Diagnosing either a parasitic infection or an allergic reaction, our vet treated Jumpy with the full arsenal of veterinary weapons: an antiparasite medication, along with antibiotics and painkillers.

For two weeks, twice a day, one of us held the hamster while the other administered minuscule doses of what we hoped would relieve and cure him . . . but Jumpy did not improve. His ears swelled, his belly was distended and he spent most of the day huddled in his hamster castle. His treadmill never moved.

I took him back to the vet, who explained our options. We could continue to treat Jumpy, every other week for the rest of his life, to the tune of some $200 per visit. Or we could end treatments—and Jumpy—with an overdose of some drug. It was left to me to decide.

The irony of my situation was not lost on me. I have spent years writing about how families contend with decisions just like this: Insert a feeding tube or not, try a ventilator or let nature take its course. In the hypothetical world of writing, the answers always seemed plausible and I seemed confident.

In the real-world situation in which I found myself—with a sobbing 9-year-old boy and a quaking hamster of indeterminate age—it was less straightforward. Eventually, we agreed that it was time to end Jumpy’s suffering, that he would be cremated and that we would acknowledge and celebrate the happiness he had brought to my son.

...I would like to write a thank-you letter to the vet, acknowledging him for the compassion and human touch he showed to my little boy, who had just confronted the first of what is ultimately a lifetime of loss.

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