On Tuesday (tomorrow!) I start volunteering in Penn Vet's Emergency Service (ES) department. Orientation was last Thursday. I've been anxious about doing this. I'm excited about being in a hospital environment and learning about how medicine works in practice (especially at a preeminent institution), but I'm worried about how I will react to seeing suffering, both of the animals and of their people. On the day of the orientation I was feeling a sense of peace (I think my subconscious has been working through the conflict). I believe I can see this as exposure therapy: a way to go to a place that scares me and learn, eventually, that the place is not as scary as I believe it to be. Besides, I want to be there for the animals; if that's hard for me to do, so be it.
I admit I was slightly shocked when we were told "If you're in ES, the first thing you do when you come in is check for dead bodies. It's okay, they're already bagged and tagged; you just need to take them where they need to go." Dead bodies? How can I not pick up those vessels without wondering what suffering brought them to this point? Did they have a good life? And who had to go back home to an empty house with an irreparably broken heart?
After considering this part of the job, I decided I would be okay with it. Animals die; that's something I'll be close to when I'm in this hospital. After all, I don't have to look at their faces or their damaged bodies; they'll be bagged and tagged. That was my rationalization until the volunteer coordinator opened the door of the cooler where the dead animals are kept and I saw the shelves holding the black bags. That made a rock drop into my belly, taking my wind away.
We volunteers have an out. If we ever feel uncomfortable, we can leave the room. I've already decided that that won't be me. Even though I'm scared. Even though I probably will feel like I want to leave the room. It's important for me to stay.
We only saw a few animals during our orientation. On the 3rd floor of the hospital is the IV fluid ward. That's where lovely Zose spent a night in January 2010, two months before she died. I looked in and saw a couple dogs, and a cute kitty looked back at me. She seemed small, but bright, healthy. I hoped she's not a terminal kidney patient like so many of the IV fluid patients are (and Zose was).
Serendipitously, my preparation for working at Penn Vet is the culmination of challenging work I have done this summer: participating in a weekend workshop with Pema Chodron at Omega and immersing myself in meditation practice; nine credits of Thanatology courses at Hood College. My understanding of myself and my capacity for compassion has grown. I am ready and willing to face my fears and be available to provide the furry patients with lovingkindness, to take in their fear and pain and anxiety and send them calm and compassion.
Not surprisingly, the IV fluid ward is on the same hall as the rooms for the feline kidney transplant patients and the feline kidney transplant donors. One is across the hall from the other. No transplant patients are in residence right now, but I looked in the donor room and saw two black cats lying casually on a round pet bed on the floor. These cats are waiting to become a match for a cat who is in acute kidney failure, is deemed a good candidate for transplant, and has a caretaker willing to spend the upwards of $5000 that a transplant requires. After transplantation the kidney donor cat goes home with its donee. It doesn't seem like much of a life for them to be confined to a small room with no windows. But they really didn't seem very bothered. As I consistently find, and try to remind myself, these creatures are often far more resilient than I give them credit for.
The hospital is quiet after 6pm. All of the scheduled appointments are over for the day: the staff of the dentistry and opthamology departments (and other non-emergent services) have gone home. The staff that I did see moved about the building with a friendly confidence. I wondered if I could have been one of them if I had made different career choices in my youth. (I am older than most, if not all, of the other volunteers.) Moving through the hospital, I felt I was where I was supposed to be. I have felt this way before: lurking around observatories, especially old ones (Nantucket, Wellesley, Edinburgh). Now I am in a new chapter, with my eyes and my heart open to the beings proximate to me rather than to the intangible bodies far above and far away.
There are many things about this experience that I anticipate will be difficult for me, and likely many other things that I cannot yet imagine that will challenge me. But this is where my courage will grow. I will lean into the fear and the discomfort. I will be a presence of calm for the people and animals who are having one of their worst days. I will not leave the room.