Heidi Kyser

Journalist, writer

Aja’s last breath

with 4 comments

I’m waiting to kill my dog. My boyfriend, who’s at work, is making the calls to the mobile veterinarian and pet crematorium, since I am unable to speak the necessary words, ask the logistical questions. How soon can you get there? What’s the extra charge for an evening pickup?

Aja, on her 13th birthday, in 2013.

Aja, on her 13th birthday, in 2013.

You never know if you’re doing the right thing, having a beloved pet put to sleep. But this morning, around 4:30 a.m. – when Aja’s respiration topped 80 breaths per minute, up from her resting rate of 55; and I was contemplating giving her another subcutaneous injection of furosemide, the so-called “water pill” that has kept fluid from rebuilding in her heart and lungs to the point where she could suffer another arrest, her third in five days; and I didn’t want to give her the shot anyway, knowing that she’d already had 40 milligrams of the stuff in the last 12 hours, and that, even though the vet said it’s a good tradeoff, I don’t want to save her heart at the expense of her kidneys – around that time, she got quiet for a bit. I couldn’t hear the rapid, rasping breath I’d been tracking all night. I couldn’t hear anything at all. And I began to pray that my faithful sidekick of a dozen years had stopped breathing and would die in her sleep.

That’s when I knew it was time.

Doctors don’t help much, despite their best efforts. In less than a week, I’ve taken her to four different DVMs, who’ve consulted with radiologists and cardiologists. They have good information, but they are also human beings with pets of their own, and ideas about how they would do things in my place.

“I’m not going to sugar-coat it,” said the emergency vet, who saw Aja after her second syncope (that’s Greek for passing out due to insufficient blood flow to the brain, in her case brought on by mitral valve disease), “the prognosis is bad.” When I asked how long she had, he estimated two months on the outside. Could be two weeks. “But what will those two weeks be like?” he added. “There are many other forms of suffering besides just pain.” Over the following days, I saw what he meant. The three different meds she was on (two for her heart, plus the water pill) were keeping her alive, but she couldn’t go for a walk, or stay comfortable in the same position too long, or do much of anything besides lie around with her chest heaving laboriously.

Except during the rebounds, which have come after close calls with another arrest followed by heavy doses of medication. Then, for a couple hours, she perks up, wiggles her tail, does her customary happy dance, rolls on her back for me to rub her soft, pink belly. She eats, drinks, poops normally. Things look up. I latch onto the Internet articles that describe syncope as a manageable condition, ignore the footnotes about mitral valve disease being fatal, and resolve to give it another day.

“If it were my dog, I’d exhaust all the options,” said the vet I took her to see when my usual vet was off for the weekend. I had gone in, after another difficult night, determined to be realistic and ask about end-of-life options. But he recommended an EKG, further consultation with specialists and blood tests. As I handed my credit card over to the receptionist for the fourth time in as many days, she said, “Good thing you have pet insurance.”

It doesn’t take long to get caught on the hamster-wheel of conflicting advice and information. To break the cycle, I started taking notes. For two and a half days, I meticulously logged Aja’s respiration and sleep patterns, her activities and moods.

“8:30 a.m. – 57 breaths per minutes; trouble getting comfortable… 6:30 p.m. – 55 breaths per minute; sleeping peacefully… 11: 30 a.m. – 70 b/m, labored breathing, congestion; gave 15 mg. shot of Lasix… 9:30 p.m. – 67 b/m, seems relaxed, but breath is rapid and shallow…”

This morning, as I looked back over 60 hours of notes, I realized they had helped me with specifics, such as when I should administer medication or could safely leave her alone for a half-hour errand. But they didn’t help me with the big picture.

What did was wishing my dog would die at 4:30 a.m. I didn’t wish it for me, in the sense that I could no longer bear the difficulty of what I was going through. For Aja, I could sacrifice sleep for a couple months, easy. But I did wish it for me in the sense that her fate rests entirely in my hands. When she eats, drinks, sleeps, goes out or stays in have always depended more or less on me. Now, when she gets relief from the pressure in her chest, the stress of being left alone, that depends on me, too. The reason I wished she would die in her sleep was that it would be painless and quick. I was trying to wish the responsibility out of my hands.

Perhaps most importantly, I realized, I don’t want her to die alone – especially from an attack like the one she had last Wednesday, when she wailed and collapsed, unconscious, vomited a stream of bloody foam and released her bowels on me as we drove, panicked, to the vet. It was a fluke that I was home at 3:30 on a weekday afternoon. What would she have gone through if I hadn’t been there?

Not too long ago, I said to my boyfriend, “You know, it sounds corny, but when I’m in a bad mood, all I have to do is just look at Aja, and I feel better.” That’s not true anymore. Now, even during her rebounds, I look at her and feel a pinch of sadness, because I can see it’s hard for her to breathe. I know she’ll never draw a slow, deep, satisfying lung-full of air again. I can’t control that now, either. But I can make sure she takes her last breath sitting on my lap, held by the human she trusts and loves most.


Written by Heidi Kyser

February 17, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. So sorry…my heart breaks for you.

    Holly Baker Baker Freelance Writing 806.773.4557


    Holly Baker

    February 17, 2014 at 2:42 pm

  2. ((hugs)) Aja may not be at your side but she will always be with you in spirit and her life carries on in your heart and memories.

    Barb Eschels

    February 20, 2014 at 12:42 pm

  3. I feel and know that loss. My heart is with you Heidi. My best Vickey


    February 22, 2014 at 1:01 am

  4. Oh Heidi, I am so sorry you lost your beloved Aja. I know how much you loved her. Pat joins me in extending our condolences. Reading your blog, you made the only decision you could: helping your baby pass peacefully, painlessly. You did NOT kill her. You HELPED her. Always remember that. Remember the good, happy times….Easier said than done, but we are trying to do so ourselves as well. Not to take away from your sorrow…but it seems your baby girl passed away the same day our beloved Bijou did. at around 7:00pm on February 17th. Mitsou in December and Bijou in February. I was away both times, and they both passed away in Pat’s arms. Your Aja, our Bijou and Mitsou, the three of them are frolicking like young puppies, free of pain. Waiting for us in the big field in the sky. Waiting for us to cross the rainbow bridge together one day. Yes Heidi, all dogs do go to Heaven. With much affection, Cherif and Pat (and lonesome surviving BuBu)


    March 7, 2014 at 7:27 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: