Over the summer, my parents went out of town for a few days. I volunteered to stay at home and house-sit, since they live nearby, and it was a great opportunity to get out of my dingy apartment. I had envisioned a clean shower and a quiet place to study for my medical school exams. Yet, when I arrived, there was a long to-do list written out on a yellow pad of paper sitting on the kitchen table. Bring in the mail. Take out the trash. Water the plants.
Above all, it was my job to take care of the dogs. Especially Clyde.
Clyde is our Scottish terrier. He’s 14 years old. He’s outlived his sister, Bonnie. And he’s dying.
For months, Clyde has shown signs of aging — slowing down on walks, urinating in the house, whimpering in the middle of the night. In July, my parents took him to a clinic and finally got a diagnosis. Bloody fluid in his abdomen. A mass in his liver. Cancer. The vet said that there wasn’t much we could do. No surgery or medications could save him at his age.
Urban legend tells us that one dog year is equivalent to seven human years. By that rule, Clyde is nearly 100 human years old. The exact numbers don’t really matter, though. I’m only now in my 20s and, since we grew up together, he seems to have grown old without me. It’s difficult to watch him disintegrate, as if my childhood is fading away.
Our family also has a golden retriever, Addie, who is still young and full of life. I think she must be aware on some level of what’s going on with her older companion. Whenever she tries to play with him, he lies there or walks away. He doesn’t run alongside her during our walks like he used to. She must know that something is off, that he isn’t acting like himself. But does she know that he won’t be around soon? That his time has almost come?
At the clinic, my parents were offered the option of putting Clyde down. It was a difficult decision but, in the end, they agreed it wasn’t his time yet. After all, he still devours his meals. He licks our faces and jumps at the sight of his leash. Instead, they’ve resorted to comforting him in his dying days. More biscuits. Softer dog food. Some pills to reduce bladder inflammation. A kind of veterinary hospice care, if you will.
When I stayed at home, I assumed these responsibilities and established a daily routine. In the mornings, I let the dogs outside and refilled their water bowl. In the evenings, I fed them dinner and afterwards took them for nightly walks around the neighborhood.
During the days, I left the house and returned to my life as a medical student. I went to the hospital for long hours and learned about sickness and treatments and health. I was on my surgery rotation, spending my time in operating rooms. We fixed hernias and took out gallbladders, stapled stomachs and searched for cancers. Every day, I witnessed miracles of modern medicine, from space-age medical devices to life-saving procedures.
However, amidst the beeping machines and the sterile drapes, it was hard not to think about Clyde at home. The blood in his belly. And the cancer that will never be cured.
Wearing blue scrubs and white gloves, I watched expert surgeons insert cameras into patients’ abdomens. Organs and arteries and fat and veins appeared on the television screens above the patients. The liver often filled the monitors, since it’s one of the larger organs in the abdomen. The surgeons carefully maneuvered through the anatomy and focused their instruments on the proper locations. And, behind my face shield and mask, I wondered whether dog livers look like people livers. Whether dog cancers look like people cancers.
What will I look like when I reach 14 dog years? Will I make it there?
How can medicine best help us when we’re old?
At the end of each day, I went home and walked up the stairs to the front door. When I opened the door, Addie would run around with excitement, jumping up onto the couch and then onto me and back onto the couch. Clyde would saunter over from across the entryway, stopping just before my feet and looking up at me, panting, aged, wondering where I had gone.
Editor’s note: Clyde passed away shortly before publication of this column.
Nathaniel P. Morris is a student at Harvard Medical School.