Limits of compassion found in way we treat ourselves

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 9, 2005

This week I had to do the hardest thing for those of us who love our pets.

Jessie, our 12-year-old Labrador has had cancer for the last two years. Finally, her whimpers told us the pain was too much to handle.

This week my wife and I, together to make it easier for us, took Jessie to the vet and had her put to sleep. It hurts. I miss her.

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She was a great friend to my wife when I was very sick for an extended time. She also understood about 100 words of our conversations. We actually had to talk around the dog.

I am only glad that we had a way to stop Jessie's pain. It was very hard to see her limp, harder to hear her pain and most hard to see her questioning eyes. It is a compassionate culture that cares for its animal friends in their need, even when that need leads us to hard choices, hard decisions, like the one we had to make this week.

For the last decade, I have lived with heart failure. Many Americans share this disease with me.

It is thought of as an epidemic. It is also a pretty profitable industry.

Hospitals build larger and larger heart care facilities and the pharmaceutical industry is thriving on all the medications we consume to live longer and remain active.

I can tell you that the advances in medicine have kept me alive more than once over the last 10 years, each time with technologies that would not have been available one lifetime before mine.

My open heart surgery would have been impossible 30 years ago and the platinum-coated stint I added just this year is very new.

Given all of the advances that have allowed me these extra years, and I do feel they are indeed "extra" for me, I still am often confronted with the darker side of this disease when in the hospital or the various physicians' offices I tour.

A man in the bed next to me one stay was going through kidney failure. He was a dialysis patient with complications. Others come and go with their portable oxygen tanks and masks, necessary to maintain their oxygen levels.

Still others never quite recover from the body invasion of open heart surgery. Eventually, heart failure leads to susceptibility to other infections and viruses, causing death.

Or, the natural end of the disease has its own conclusion, the failure to keep the lungs clear of fluid, allowing the patient to die from the inability to breathe.

This week, I put Jessie to sleep, a practice we have honored for hundreds of years when our animal companions are suffering without relief. But were it me, not Jessie, my physician would do everything possible to extend my life, and, as a by-product, my suffering.

Most religions would agree, valuing my life so highly that I would have to suffer rather than escape by the only real path out of life. How did we reach this place, where our compassion is withheld from those we love the most if that compassion can only be expressed as releasing them?

I remain one of the fortunate ones with this disease. I have seen so many suffer so much more, courageously and silently handling whatever pain they have to endure.

They deserve our love and compassion, those who suffer from any of the fateful, painful diseases and disabilities that end our lives slowly and with harder and harder moments.

I am adding still more technology now, an internal defibrillator to jump start my heart if I need it.

This could be a shocker.

Dr. Jim Crawford is an administrator at Ohio University Southern. He can be reached at