Can the end be made kinder? Yes.

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Often it’s the most difficult matters in life that are hardest to consider, much less discuss. And it is just such matters that call for the greatest care and consideration. If we are to make choices we’ll be at peace with — when the moment arrives, and after it’s passed — we must face the hard things.

Death is the hardest of them all.

As pet guardians we all will face the too-soon arrival of the end of their lives. Their lifespans are so much shorter than ours. Often at the end we ask, Is it time? Do we keep him going? Is it selfish to hold on? Is it unloving to let go? These are questions we all face, searching for certainty, for strength, for guidance.

When the answer is, “It’s time,” one option that can provide great comfort in this unbearable yet unavoidable step is a compassionate attendant to the passage . . . in the safety, comfort and serenity of the family home.

Lori Gibson, DVM opened Compassionate Care Home Pet Euthanasia Services serving Portland and surrounding late last spring. The only professional offering this service exclusively, Gibson says “Believe it or not, I’ve never experienced such appreciation as I have in this field.”

When asked how she came to be a veterinarian and ultimately to exclusively practice home euthanasia, Gibson says she always had an affinity for animals. “I bred and showed guinea pigs, had hamsters, all that.” Pepper, a short-haired black cat in the family since Gibson was eight, had a hand in it too.

In college, Gibson was just beginning to wonder what to do with her life. “Most of us think we’ll get out of college and get a great job. But it doesn’t always happen that way,” she says. She was working at OHSU at the time, not yet having decided on a definite career track, when Pepper fell ill. Gibson called it “weird timing,” explaining that it made her realize she “still wanted to be a vet.” With just enough time to apply for the next session at OSU to which only 38 students would be accepted, she did, and she did. Pepper improved.

During her first year at veterinary school Gibson’s dad was diagnosed with cancer. She says seeing him go through hospice, then stop eating and then “lose his desire to be here anymore,” was another important piece. Six months after her dad died, Pepper followed, on a night during finals.

The combination of her dad’s death, the stress of school, and then struggling with decisions about Pepper’s end of life would ultimately imbue her with a sensitivity to and appreciation for the fact that life is rarely simple — that most big life events are affected by many factors.

Another experience that shaped the doctor Gibson would become was working in a veterinary clinic after graduation. There she experienced the daily necessity of moving patients through, and the reality that decisions were often made not only in a pressured, fast-moving environment, but also often made around money.

“They tell us at school that veterinary medicine is a hard field,” says Gibson. “I finished my education $100k in debt, and I was making . . .” not so much. But one of the hardest things for her, she says, was, “I didn’t like that so many decisions had to be made based on finances.”

During these years Gibson was aware of one service providing home euthanasia, knowing it only as a phone number to refer people to. “I talked to my boss about starting a service on the side, but never got it going.” That was in early 2000.

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While details from her professional past are peppered with terms like “learning,” “money,” “good experience but not a fit,” her stories today have one noticeably recurring word: “rewarding.”

“I didn’t expect to go into veterinary medicine to euthanize pets exclusively,” she says, but her story clearly illustrates how the ‘fit’ that eluded her for years had finally found her.  

“People ask, ‘How do you do this?’” says Gibson, adding with a smile, “or some say with a little more diplomacy, ‘How did you ever come to do this?’” She concludes, “I tell people, ‘believe it or not it’s incredibly rewarding.’”  

Gibson seems to possess that rare gift of comfortably, and ably, attending others through the transition from life to death.

“It’s gonna sound corny,” she says, “but I liken it to birth. Death is also no less an important, momentous event. To help people through that is an honor, rewarding.”

Gibson says, “People don’t want to think about their pet’s death — I’ve been there myself, thinking they’ll live forever.”

When it comes, Gibson says, it can catch people off guard. It is exactly such situations in which her services can be the most helpful in practical ways."

“In the worst case you might have a huge Husky who’s acutely painful at 3 a.m. — where do you turn? Do you wait ‘til the clinic opens? Can you even get him in the car? To be able to help make it easier is very rewarding.” 

A situation needn’t be that dramatic for Gibson’s role to make an important impact. “Even a small kitty,” she says, “that’s easy enough to transport and handle . . . some people have others in their family who are sick, or they’ve recently lost someone . . . just other factors that make it so important for this passage to go more easily.” 

While at turns people have described Gibson as a counselor or a hospice service, she says she is really not those things, that what she does is “do my best to inform and support people at a time when they may be wrestling with the hardest decision.” 

Gibson says this is when her training and experience as a vet is most valuable, as she can break down the medical facts, realities and choices. “Plus what happened with my dad and my cat,” she says, pointing to a crossroads she sees many clients reach: not wanting to wait too long or act too fast. 

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“It’s a personal decision based on a lot of factors,” she says, “there’s no magic formula.” Fortunately, she says, most people don’t want her to decide what to do for them, but rather to validate and support the decision they’ve made, or are preparing to make.

“You know your pet, the signs,” says Gibson. “Even if the pet is still eating or not yet experiencing acute pain . . . .” Some choose to end life while their companion is on an upswing, wanting to spare them extreme pain or anguish later, knowing that given time, it will come. “I fully support that,” she says. “A lot of people wait too long. I’ve done the same thing. And that’s okay, too; it’s just the path they have to go down. My job is to support their decision, not to second-guess them or their vet.”

Gibson works by vet referral. When a client comes to her directly, she strives to ensure the client has worked with their vet, “who knows the big picture.”

In rare cases Gibson has declined services. One was a pet owner who essentially wanted to dispose of her animals as her lifestyle was changing.

In other cases clients have asked Gibson to help determine whether euthanasia was appropriate. One involved a dog who, with surgery, ultimately had very good chances for many more years of healthy living. Gibson suggested surgery, saying that if they were conflicted they should re-think their decision. Later Gibson learned of other factors that would have challenged anyone’s judgment. Happily, the couple opted for surgery, which was successful. 

“Sometimes it’s about what people are prepared to go through,” says Gibson. “My job is to inform and support them.”

How does the process work? First a meeting to discuss the condition of the pet in need of euthanasia, and aftercare. When Gibson arrives, she determines that euthanasia is warranted and has the pet parents sign a consent form. When the pet and family are ready, a sedative/pain medication is administered by injection. Once sedated, and again only when the family is ready to proceed, an intravenous injection completes the procedure. Gibson believes strongly in allowing the process to commence at the family’s speed and comfort level, and to make it as stress-free and peaceful as possible. After the procedure, the service includes arrangements and transport of the pet to a local pet crematorium if desired

Testimonials on the Compassionate Care website underscore how much clients value this aspect of Gibson’s service. Here are two of many, shared here with permission from the authors:

I want to thank you again for your services on Saturday 5/29 for my 17 yr old beloved cat Miles.  Your calm and gentle manner and kindness were most appreciated.  Your explanations helped enormously. The time you spent was so personal and exactly what I wanted to have happen when the time came to say goodbye to my buddy.

PS: I know you worked hard to become a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine but it really helped calling you Lori….thank you for that too.

- Marleen Mercer, Beaverton, OR

Sami and I were deeply appreciative of your compassionate and caring attention to Pepper’s final need.  Your kindness, willingness to talk, and clear support of a “proceed at your speed” approach to ending our beloved Pepper’s life was deeply comforting to each of us.  We will never forget your kindness on this terrible, wrenching day.  Should any friends or family members find themselves to be in a similar circumstance we will not hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend you. 

You are fulfilling a need that almost all dog-lovers face at some point.  Hopefully, you will still be available in the future should we again be faced with the need to electively end the life of a dearly loved 4-legged family member.

- Bob Crooks, Lake Oswego, OR

Gibson makes clear she has no interest in pulling business from other clinics. Listening to her though, this fact speaks for itself. Equipped with impressive experience and training, she has traveled a path that from early on clearly led her to the role she fills today. And while many things about it fit, one thing rings through powerfully: in this work, Dr. Lori Gibson has not only found her fit, she has found work that is rewarding.

Gibson’s credentials, education, professional history and memberships can be found on her website, as can many notes from appreciative clients. 

I lost Paxton six years ago. Shortly after finding the cancer we learned it had metastasized . . . everywhere. So I had no hard decisions to make. I had only to watch her quality of life, make sure she stayed this side of well and comfortable, and accept that she would be leaving soon.

I knew when it was time. Sporty in her hot pink “diaper,” she lay, eyes laboring to stay watchful, as was her way, but finally moving little, her light fading. When our connection went from weak to fragile, I knew it was time.

I checked with our trusted vet, double-double-checking my instincts that it was time. They assured me it was.

She was my first baby to pass, and I knew nothing of end of life services then. Had I known, I’m not sure I would have sought them. I don’t do well with death, or with the remains left by a departing life force. But that was then. Today, I would . . . for Paxton. Her stress at the vet’s office was pronounced (please note: we love those guys and they love us). Nevertheless, our goodbye was abrupt and harsh. 

Whether you’re comfortable with this transition or more like I was, conducting the passage at home with a skilled, loving guide can make this thing we’d give anything to make go away (but can’t) . . . more kind. For your beloved companion, and for us.

-the editor