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When Does Sustaining A Life Become Harmful? (Ahimsa)

I fundamentally don't believe in medically sustaining a life that seems to have met with its naturally intended end. I feel guilty about this; it's not something I would publicly declare (I mean, if I thought anyone was reading my blog I wouldn't...). I don't believe in long-term life support. I do support assisted suicide. It's murky, of course. What do you do with the person who is in an extended coma? Or a vegetative state? They're technically alive, but they're not living. I feel like most, if they could give their opinion, would prefer not to linger on earth in such a state. But I've never been directly involved in this type of situation, so maybe I'd feel differently if I was. I do feel that the medical community, and we as a culture, maybe put a teeny bit too much effort into keeping very old, very sick people alive with medications, treatments, surgeries, etc., on the hope that life can be sustained for a few more months. But again, I've never been close to such a situation, so I don't know how I'd feel if I were.


My husband and I have made it clear in our wills that we want our plugs pulled, should we ever find ourselves at the end of one. But I also know that if I was diagnosed with cancer, for example, I would do all the chemo, radiation, and surgeries to fight it. There's not a clear cutoff point--like after age 95 you should stop fighting for life--but I view life, including the end of it, pragmatically. Or at least I thought I did.


So it's troubling that during this second round of trying to live by Ahimsa and "do no harm", I am grappling with my 13.5-year-old dog's recent diagnosis and ABSURDLY EXPENSIVE treatment for Cushing's disease and all its resultant infections that are proving incurable. It was a relief to finally get some answers for his rapid physical decline, but the tests and treatment attempts have done little to reduce his discomfort at the cost of thousands of dollars in vet visits and medications. In 2020 I spent well over $6000 on him. I don't know the exact amount because I never started keeping track, thinking each time I shelled out $500 it would be the last for a while.


I don't fundamentally believe in spending large amounts of money to keep senior pets alive, and yet here I am, for the second time, doing just that. In 2014 my husband and I dropped an amount more than three times the cost of my first car in a panic to give our 12-year old pointer Ellie a surgery that bought her only ten more weeks of life. It was my husband's dog and his money, so I was in the background of the decision, but I silently swore I'd never do something like that again. Yet here I am, only a few more "tests" and prescriptions away from hitting that same dollar amount with my dog, Buster.

Ellie in the forefront, Buster in the back. 2010?

But why am I doing it? To give him more time to live a low-quality life? To absolve myself of the guilt that would consume me if I didn't? To appear as a worthy pet owner in the eyes of the vet, who seems to think I am a millionaire? I keep going back to the scenario of someone--or just a different version of myself--living a less financially stable life, who simply couldn't afford these treatments ($400+ per month, on average). Would I still be tortured over the choice of "treat" or "put to sleep", or would the answer be obvious? If I lived in a rural town would these treatments even be a point of discussion? In LA it's not only assumed that I can afford the treatments, but also that I would sacrifice anything to make sure I could--would not even question it.


Am I being selfish by trying to keep him alive? Or being selfish in trying to avoid the guilt and uncertainty that may come with putting him down? When I adopted him (he was a little older than the other puppies, in the very last kennel in the last row at the shelter, depressed and seemingly hopeless, or so I told myself), I thought I was 'saving' him. But now I wonder if any desire to own a pet is inherently selfish. Certainly it goes against the essence of the fifth Yama, Aparigraha.


I feel callous and dark when I return to the tugging thought of stopping treatment and letting Buster go, the way he would if he were in the wild. But he's not a wild animal and his life is my responsibility. It is also my responsibility to help him comfortably transition from life, not drag out his suffering. The difficulty with dogs is that they don't easily show pain. They tend to keep wanting to please their masters by eating and going for walks, even when it's uncomfortable. So by the time he's really, truly suffering, chances are the suffering has been going on for quite a while. But there's no way to know; he can't tell me he's ready to pass or that he'd like to stick around.


Ahimsa does't offer a scale on which to weigh the value of a life--a gnat is as precious as a 5-year old child. Mother Theresa is no more important than the homeless drug addict or the criminal rapist. This is why it's so hard for us humans to examine our scales of morality--because deep down we do put different values on different forms and paths of life.


The experience of being human and having these dilemmas is difficult. The deep examination of the nuances to being human is difficult. Losing a pet is difficult. Being the one to decide when a life should end feels horrific.


When we take on the responsibility of owning a pet or having a child, we take on the potential of these unimaginable decisions. I just hope that I do the right thing at the right time. And trust that all of this work I've been doing of slowing down, being present, and deeply examining myself and circumstances will help me to know that it is.

Buster in Feb. '21, forever finding patches of sun.

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