I’m lucky in my family that we have always had dogs. Currently we have Barnaby, a 12 year old Golden Retriever. Some of you have seen photos of him; sometimes he humours me, other times he turns away when he sees my phone angled in his direction. ‘Not another photo,’ I know he is thinking.
But we are very lucky to still have him. He was only around 9 months old when our fur ball started to limp badly on one of his front legs. A session of keyhole surgery put him right for a while, before he developed cruciate issues with one of his back legs. He had the surgery but with the specialist warning us that at some point in the future the other leg, which had borne the additional weight while he recovered, would also need surgery. A few years later he was back to have the remaining cruciate done. At the time the final surgery aged him. Everyone was exclaiming how old he looked in his now whitened face, and he was only around 7 years old at the time. He’s also had bad ear infections, as if the legs were not enough!
As a result of having had work done on three of his four legs, Barn has been on steroids for most of his life. But he has never let any of this bother him. Now in old age he has quite a bit more wrong with him. Last May on holiday we thought we had lost him; his heart had stopped. Thankfully the new heart pills he needed for his enlarged heart kicked in and literally saved his life. They are expensive but so very worth it. Whilst walking him today a lady called him ‘Lionheart’ – it created mixed emotions in us.
Barn also suffers from arthritic legs as we knew he would. The bionic element of his legs, the specialist gave him would strengthen his own weakened joints, but nothing lasts forever. Seeing him walk on his knuckles when the circulation doesn’t get to the end of his paws is too much and I have to look away tearful. It breaks my heart. Lastly, he has Laryngeal Paralysis, which means one side of his throat doesn’t always open as it should when he breathes. This means sometimes he chokes and it’s painful to see.
But despite all this he is happy. He loves his food, his walks, his big Leonberger mate and the pub. He still drags us into the aforementioned pub first chance he gets, and he is so well behaved inside lapping up his waterbowl, biscuits and pleading for just one more chip! The legs may splay out behind him, he may fall over unexpectedly, but he carries on regardless. He does much better on all this then we ever would. We would complain every chance we got to our friends and family, wouldn’t we? Some days it would be the main topic of conversation.
I can’t imagine being without Barn and yet some day I will have no choice. For most of the last year we have lived in fear every time he has gone downhill only to bounce back a few days later, when the ‘Barney Bounce’ as we call it materialises again. It has been like a dark cloud, a plethora of emotions. We didn’t think he would make it to Christmas, neither did the vet, but he is still currently here. We are so lucky to still have him, but the threat of losing him is still around the corner and never goes away. We are reminded everyday.
The vet has prepared us when times were not so good in the last year. We will not let him suffer. I believe dogs know when it is their time and they tell us. Barn’s attitude right now is he has so much still to do; another paddle, another play, another meal, another cuddle from his adoring human pack!
I genuinely believe that animals are the lucky ones when it comes to health. Barn’s medication has been expensive over the years, a bottomless pit in fact, which still continues, but he has had the best pills and they have kept him going and more importantly kept him happy.
When the time does comes we know he will have had the best life and he won’t have suffered. When he can no longer walk or no longer breath, it will be time. But for humans this is so very different. We are kept alive and there is no help on our way. Medication is not withdrawn or an increase in morphine to assist us passing. Living has to be more than a heartbeat. If something happened to me and I ended up brain damaged as a result, my family know I don’t want to live. I would want someone to pull the plug, but instead doctors would pump us with pills or surgery, keep us going for another day, another week, whatever they thought they could achieve.
It’s the reason that now our life expectancy is so high, surgeons still operate on elderly patients. Previously age, health and chance of recovering were taken into consideration, now a surgeon is more likely to get their patient prepped and head into theatre. My grandfather nearing the end had very bad Alzheimer’s. He complained of stomach pains, which everyone including the medical staff thought were a symptom of his illness. Eventually we found out otherwise and the doctors took him into surgery. The surgery was a success, but he died soon after. Other people I know have had loved ones confined to a bed, in constant pain and just wanting it all to be over. A heavy dose of morphine kept them tipped between this world hallucinating and where they wanted to be.
There was a case a few years ago. A baby was born who had so many things wrong with her and was in constant pain. There was no quality of life for her. There was nothing the doctor could do except inform the parents that he wanted to withhold medical treatment and let the baby die. The parents took the doctor to court to fight this decision. No judge or jury could ever side against the parents, so the doctor was ordered to continue the treatment. The parents then had the baby adopted – it was only due to their religious beliefs that they had not had a termination. The baby became someone else’s problem and the suffering the baby had endured was allowed to continue.
There is no vet to tell our loved ones they need to make the decision and say their goodbyes, but I dearly wish there was. Life has to be more than a heartbeat. Don’t we all deserve that dignity?