Monday, 28 December 2009

The Youth in Asia Pt 2 - Christmas Clearout

The dust from the house move is slowly settling (like nuclear fallout, only slightly worse for my health), Christmas is fading away into the ether and the New Year looms menacingly in the darkness ahead, like a drunken thug with a sock full of stones.

All of which cheery preamble means that my life is starting to approach something of a routine once more, and the quiet but insistent voice that's been whispering in the back of my brain that I promised I'd do a blog in December has started shouting and poking me in the backs of my eyes as January approaches. So here it is! My Christmas blog, only slightly late.

I love Christmas. I'm aware that it's pretty much a made-up holiday, having very little to do with the birth of anyone any more, a holiday that was pinched off the Romans by the Christians (and almost cetainly stolen off someone else by the Romans before that) - fine by me! I have less religious conviction that Richard Dawkins.

I am also not blind to the fact that it is a tacky, tawdry, consumerist behemoth of a holdiay, all-consuming, all-devouring. But, it's so ubiquitous, that if you try and fight against it you'll go insane. Christmas is, and always has been (whatever it's been called down the centuries) a celebration that we've made it this far through life, and basically a party to cheer ourselves up that we've still got a very long winter left ahead of us.

And it works. Christmas is a bright spot in the dead of winter, a time for family and friends to get together, and forget about our otherwise boring lives. Yay for Christmas!

However...I hate being a vet at Christmas, and not because I usually have to be on duty for some of it - at least people tend to feel a little guilty if they call you in on Christmas Day, and you get less of the 'My cat can't sleep'-type call in the small hours of the night.

No, the reason I hate my particular job at Christmas is the phenomenon of the 'Christmas Clearout'. Christmas may be a time for family, friends and fun, but for various reasons it also seems to be a time when people finally decide to bump off their animals.

In the week leading up the Christmas (a three-day week), I personally performed seven euthanasias. Three of them were in a row, all lined up in reception waiting for me to call them in for their last ever appointment. As to why this happens around the festive season - well, I think it's a time when people stop and reassess their lives. The family is coming round, and suddenly that old doddery cat looks - well, very old, and very doddery. Suddenly that incontinent dog doesn't seem very easy to deal with. Suddenly the fact that your German Shepherd has nipped a few people in it's time looks a lot more worrying when the grandchildren are coming round.

Finances play into it too, of course. It's okay to keep the arthritis tablets going until you have to buy a Wii for the kids, and that thyroid operation looks a hell of a lot more expensive with the presents piled up under the tree.

Frustratingly, another reason - almost unbelievable to me now but sadly I see it every year - is to make room for the new pet that is being bought for someone as a present. Seriously - it's not big, it's not clever, and it's definitely not funny - please don't buy a pet, particularily and especially a puppy, as a present. I'm sure I don't need to tell you this, but it still happens every year.

This year has been especially bad because the practice has had several 'out of the blue' cases - nothing to do with Christmas, cases which suddenly get ill with no warning, but which turn out to have extremly serious problems such as liver cancer or kidney failure, and so need to be euthanased with little or no warning. These sad cases happen all year round, of course, but seem particularily poignant and sad just before the holidays, especially on top of the marked increase in euthanasia in general.

My thoughts at this time of year always turn towards the act of killing itself, and the effect it has upon me. I'm the kind of person who will always catch a spider and set it free rather than squash it - moving into this new house we found ourselves infested with flies, and the fact that I still feel guilty several weeks after the fact for losing my temper and swatting three or four of them in the middle of the night tells you something about my temperament. Nothing to do with high moral standards, of course, and everything to do with cowardice. I hate to feel responsible for the cutting off of another life.

Which might lead you to suspect that I have picked the wrong career. It certainly crossed my mind on Christmas Eve as I was injecting the third cat in a row with barbiturates, and watched it take its very last breath ever. It was made especially hard by an owner distressed almost to the point of hysteria in this last case, something I found rather annoying as once more I knew the cat could have been stabilised and had a normal life for several more years with tablets or a simple operation. Both of these had been refused by the owner who 'didn't want her to go through anything', as if taking a tablet a day was the equivalent of being subjected to what George Bush might politely call 'intensive interrogation'.

As the woman retched and cried and gurgled, heading for my sink, I tried to find it in my heart to feel some sympathy for her, but hten a looked at her dead cat and thought of what she had just made me do to make her Christmas a little easier. During the procedure, all I care about is the animal, making sure everything goes smoothly, and that there is as little fear and distress as possible. Afterwards, though, I wonder about myself, and what kind of effect this constant execution has on me.

You remain detached, of course, because you have to, but I find that as I get older, starting to worry about the loss of those dear to me, both humans and animals, it becomes harder to immunise yourself to it.

The actual process of killing has a demystifying effect upon death to those who deal it out daily - there is nothing taboo about it, nothing strange. It happens easily, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but it is an inevitable, irrevocable end for us all. There is no 'special time', no warning, no clues that your story is about to come to an end. It just happens, without reason or purpose, just like your iPod fails to switch on one day or your car won't start in the morning. Life is fleeting, precious, and not at all sacred.

Okay, I'm laying it on a little thick here - It's not like I've just spent Christmas on the Somme. And I am far from the first person in the world to understand that death is no respecter of...well, of anything. But, as I sit here and reflect on the role of a vet during the Christmas holidays, knowing that there will be, more than likely, a large pile of black bags waiting in our freezer when I return to work tomorrow, it makes me wonder, just for a moment, what the suicide rates of doctors would be if human euthanasia were legal.

And, on that bombshell, I draw a close to my blogs for 2009. See you all in the new year with more cheerful news from the front line!

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we go back to work :)

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