My Experience as a Family Member
My show horse has been at the vet's for the last two weeks. He has been very sick. At one point the vet and I talked about putting him down and waiting until I could be present if something happened. Today I'm happy to report that he is doing well and coming home to his barn tomorrow. He will still be on meds and stall rest but will be past the danger. Being on the other side of health care was a new experience for me. I'm used to being the one who knows what is going on. I usually answer questions, not ask them. For the last two weeks, though, I've been a family member, not a therapist.
Now I'm not going to compare the care my horse received to that received in a hospital. Nor am I implying my horse is equal to a person. Additionally, veterinary medicine is provided in a different circumstance. There are few third-party payers. In my case, I had to provide a credit card number up front. Vets are under less stress and with lighter caseloads than the average attending MD. Unless the animal is at a teaching institution, there is no pressure to try new things.
That doesn't mean there aren't similarities between pet owners and family members. We're both worried about our loved ones. Families are thrown into the confusing world of medicine. I have a good grasp of medical principles, but no idea how those translate into values for horses. HRs, temperatures, lab values and the like are completely different. I had an advantage over the average family member. I knew why the vet was running his tests and what he was looking for. That didn't make waiting for the results or handling bad results any easier.
The father of one of the therapists I work with is in the hospital. Every day after work she goes to see him and feeds him soup. Otherwise her father doesn't eat enough. Every night after work I went to the vet and fed my horse hay or grass. For four days, the only time he ate was when I came and fed him hay. I had to stand next to him and hold the hay in my hand by his nose to get him to eat it. Just as my co-worker talks about seeing how much weight her father has lost, I could see my horse getting thinner. And neither she nor I could do anything else about it.
I spent several days waiting for my daily phone call update from the vet. My patients are lucky. Their physicians round each day at specific times. Family can be present at those times and ask questions, view films or simply talk to the docs. While I often saw the vet after work, I didn't always get to talk to him. I did have one advantage. My vet was willing to spend as long as necessary to talk to me. Most attendings are very busy. They spend very little actual time with patients. Most rely on residents to convey information and answer questions.
The worst part of this has been feeling helpless. I imagine families feel the same way. I wanted to do something. I would have done anything asked of me to help my horse. I know families feel the same. Just like I couldn't make my horse drink water, they can't make their loved one get out of bed. Nor, can they do the exercises for him or walk for her. I spent a lot of time just petting his head and picking shavings out of his mane. I've seen countless family members holding hands, brushing hair, applying lip gloss and the like. Now I understand why. I had to do something. Even though it was meaningless I felt like I was doing something at the time. My horse has yet to care whether he has bedding in his mane. Removing it made me feel better.
I didn't realize how lost I would feel until I found myself with a critically ill horse. For two weeks my life stopped. I don't know how I kept up with school. An entire week is a blur to me. I'm pretty sure many family members feel the same way and for a much longer time. I can't describe the feeling of a weight being lifted from me when the vet said Phoenix was not only going to get better but could return to being a show horse. From the very beginning I realized I just wanted him to get better and didn't care if he ever set hoof in another show ring. I wanted him to come home to his barn and be my horse. I think those same feelings are why families take home patients who require intensive care. They just want their loved one with them at home. As a PT I still don't see the logic in that. As Phoenix's owner I understand the feeling.
I hope having this experience will help me empathize more with my patients and families. I have a better understanding of the grieving process including coming to the realization that this might be the end of the road. I was lucky. Not all of my patients/families have the same luck. Many won't be the same ever again. Many, especially the older ones, will be making life altering medications as a result of the hospital admission. I now realize there is a process you go through as you make those realizations and decisions. It can't be hurried. No one can do it for you. I just hope I don't have to experience this again for a very long time.