You don’t want to see this woman, carrying these black bags, approaching your door. Or maybe you do.
In one bag she carries a vial from the river Lethe, in the other an array of medicines that might save your pet’s life.
Last August, Dr. Cynthia Redfield, one of the doctors in VetstoPets, came to my sister’s house to ease her ancient, blind dog into death.
Though Simba never lost his appetite, he had begun to balk at walk time or to crumple on the parkway and refuse to walk home. He panted from the exertion of getting to his food dish. He was a dog with issues.
Redfield arrived prepared for any eventuality. As she examined Simba, I inquired about the procedure — what happens when Simba goes down? The doc said a cremation company from her house would pick up his body; later, the ashes would be delivered to my sister.
As one does in any hospital room, we cast about for things to talk about as she examined the dog.
Redfield grew up in a small town in Wyoming. “For me, it was always about animals. The first thing I ever wanted to be was a vet. I briefly considered marine biology or primatology but ultimately went back to what I wanted to be as a five-year-old.”
She did her undergraduate work at the University of Washington. In Washington she also worked as a wildlife-care assistant with hawks, owls, and possums.
Later, she received her degree from Ross University of Veterinary Medicine located on St. Kitts in the West Indies. “It was a very unique sort of place to get a veterinary education. The relationship of people and their animals was so different than how it is here, so it was an education in culture and my own feelings about the treatment of animals.”
It was in St. Kitts that she met her husband, Aaron Rhoades, who is also a veterinarian and provides the brick-and-mortar needs of VetstoPets.
I had imagined that the decision for a veterinarian to put an animal down would be clean — scientific. But my imagination regarding many veterinarian dilemmas would soon be found lacking.
The day Redfield came for Simba, she and her husband were vacillating about putting their own dog down, a dog that Redfield had rescued on a village road in the Caribbean and whose health waned more each day. “It’s never an easy decision,” Redfield said. “The answer is often in the gray — not black or white.”
How do you know when the time is right?
Redfield referred us to the Quality of Life Scale on the VetstoPets website. Originated by Dr. Alice Villa Lobos, the scale is composed of common-sense markers — hurt, hunger, hydration, happiness, mobility, and more good days than bad.
By this time in the conversation, Simba was stretched out, totally relaxed by the doctor’s touch. He would have died a happy dog.
But Simba’s jig was not up — yet. Redfield prescribed heart medication for him, which brought his bounce back in a few days.
There are other hazards to being a veterinarian that I had failed to imagine. One of them is the way that needy or castoff animals keep appearing in a veterinarian’s life.
As in the days of old, when babies were left on orphanage doorsteps, animals appear in boxes on the steps of Redfield’s husband’s El Cajon office. That was how they acquired their pet tortoise. Their family has a growing menagerie, including several dogs and a three-legged cat.
There is another surprise side effect to the profession: among medical professionals, veterinarians have the highest rate of suicide.
I asked Redfield if she had an explanation.
“I don’t know what to say about this…the high suicide rate probably has to do with the stress that comes from staring at the moral dilemmas that come up with people and animals each and every day.”
Redfield said it was always difficult when you are treating an animal and you know that the treatment available to them is dependent on factors outside of your control.
“It’s a hard dance. As a veterinarian, you are caught between what the people can do financially, what they want to do, and what you can do. There are so many animals that need help, and they have no voices.”
Although Redfield works strictly with small animals in her door-to-door doctoring, she finished her training last year at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine; she is certified to heal horses and companion animals.
I joined Redfield at a stable in Bonita one morning to watch her administer acupuncture to Pronator, a 32-year-old Arabian. Many children from the Bonita area have learned to ride on Pronator, including Redfield’s daughter, but now he’s retired, and the aim is for him to enjoy life.
As the doctor led Pronator out from his stall, it was easy to read his age in the cut of his jaw and the sway of his back. I couldn’t help but recall a line from a Leonard Cohen song: “I ache in the places that I used to play.”
Almost a year ago, when Redfield was only two weeks into her acupuncture class, Pronator had a major injury, a pulled tendon on his left front leg. Initially, he was on a lot of pain medication. The prognosis was guarded. Redfield, however, was able to gradually relieve the horse’s pain and heal him with acupuncture.
On this sunny day, though Redfield plied Pronator with carrots and gentle pats, it was obvious that he was needle-shy. He stomped with agitation. But Redfield said, “He’s a perfect gentleman; the worst he’s ever done is switch me with his tail.” Later, when Pronator got an opportunity, he switched her again.
Redfield noted, “When he first started his acupuncture sessions, he was extremely tolerant of the needles, but as he began to feel better, he became increasingly resistant. I’ve found that with some other animals, too; they start out completely accepting and are the most docile of patients, but as they begin to heal, they are less cooperative. It’s like they know what they need and know when they are done, and again, my job is to listen.”
As with humans, horses have meridians. Redfield treated Pronator not just in the affected area, but along his rump as well. The needles, she explained, stay in for 20 minutes. Pronator visibly settled into the treatment as he began to feel relief.
Using a chart to demonstrate, Redfield pointed out that these are not random holes made by pins; rather, the needles are placed where there is a concentration of nerves, a vein, and an artery, and a high concentration of mast cells, a type of inflammatory cell.
“I believe in an integrated approach,” said Redfield. “I want to use the best of both western and eastern medicine. There is evidence of acupuncture being used in China 8000 years ago, and there are an increasing number of empirical studies which confirm acupuncture’s effectiveness. It can be used to treat pain, kidney diseases, inflammatory diseases, cancer; it’s commonly thought of as an adjunct treatment or a last resort for arthritic or neurological pain.”
I asked Redfield about soothing music, which often accompanies human treatment. She said she’s treating a Great Dane who enjoys his acupuncture with soft background music.
Redfield’s practice is widening, and her days are filled with appointments for acupuncture, wellness examinations, and hospice consultations. But there will always be the calls for euthanasia.
She says, “When euthanasia is done for the right reasons, it is a gift that offers an animal a dignified and peaceful passing. When it’s performed in their own home, there is an invaluable element of comfort and familiarity.”