Nine month-old English Bulldog called Winston is brought in as an emergency case. He is paralysed from the waist down and owners Liz and Mike don’t know what is wrong with him. Scans and other tests reveal that the future for Winston is uncertain. Liz and Mike have are faced with the terrible decision of whether or not to try saving him.
When Noel first set eyes on Winston he knew this little English Bulldog had a very serious spinal problem. Winston’s condition had rapidly deteriorated over 12 hours and his family went from having a bright and bouncy Bulldog to a subdued pup who couldn’t walk. On close examination, Noel found that Winston could not move or feel either of his hind legs.
Noel explained to Winston’s family that he needed to have an MRI and CT scan of his spine to fully understand what was happening.
As the imaging from the MRI and CT started to appear on Noel’s computer screen, it was apparent that Winston had a number of serious spinal issues. Noel identified a number of deformities in Winston’s spine that were squashing his spinal cord. Furthermore, the scans suggested there was a more serious pathological process at the root of Winston’s problems.
The MRI pictures were showing the spinal cord was seriously inflamed and given Winston’s depressed demeanour, Noel was highly suspicious that an infection of the spinal column called discospondylitis was present. Given the severity of the deformity of Winston’s spinal column, and the infection on top of this, it was felt Winston’s chance of recovery was about 50:50.
As anyone who has a canine member of their family will know, these furry companions are often at the centre of the household, and Winston’s family were desperate to give Winston a hope of recovery. Noel agreed that he would try and give Winston a chance by taking him to theatre and operating on his damaged spinal cord.
Winston was taken to surgery and Noel carried out a surgery called a hemilaminectomy to try and decompress Winston’s spinal cord and remove some of the infection.
Winston had a good recovery from anaesthesia, and he was started on antibiotics to try and fight the infection in his spinal column. The ward nurses, duty vets and rehabilitation team got to work trying to get Winston back on his feet.
The team, under the watchful eye of Noel and Colin Driver (Neurology Specialist at Fitzpatrick Referrals), devoted hundreds of hours to the care and rehabilitation of Winston.
Sadly, after a few weeks, it became apparent this little fellow was not going to recover the use of his limbs. Winston’s family knew deep down they were going to have to say goodbye to their very much loved member of their family, as given Winston’s breed and conformation, there was little hope he could ever live happily without the use of his legs.
Winston passed away peacefully with his family by his side.
One of the principal responsibilities of having an animal as part of the family is recognising and knowing when the time is right to let them pass on. Winston’s family did everything they could to save their beloved friend. However, not every patient can be saved and each and every animal and their needs are unique. These are identified in a specific moment of time in consultation with the veterinary professionals whose job it is to be the guardian angels of the animal kingdom, and protect the love shared between a family and their animal family member.
In Noels words
In my professional career, I have seldom cried as much as I did the day I held Winston’s paw and let him pass away. Sadly death is as much a part of veterinary practice as life is, because vets have the responsibility of euthanasia – which as yet is not an option for humans. This moral guardianship is at the very core of life for a vet from the first moment you take the oath for better or for worse to do the very best you can for animals everywhere for the rest of your life. I take this vocation very seriously and in fact I think it’s more important that a vet is willing to hold the hand of a family and of the animal they love as that animal passes peacefully away than it is to perform even the most heroic surgery.
In Winston’s case I am so glad that we tried… and I know his mum and dad will find peace in knowing that they had done their very best for their little friend. Every life is special on Earth and we have, I believe, a moral responsibility to look after life as long as it’s in the best interests of the welfare of that animal.
However, I believe also that there is a very firm line in the sand of life beyond which we must not walk. For a vet in companion animal practice this line is where reasonable hope of pain free functional quality of life is no longer deemed rational or possible.
This is a really tough decision and in each and every case it must be made with the animal foremost in our minds and also with our duty of care for that animal, and for the family of that animal in mind.
It’s really really tough being a vet some days, and the single hardest part is that we don’t have a crystal ball and we don’t have the gift of absolute guarantees, because we are always at the mercy of biology. We can only do our very best, and it really must be our very best. Sometimes our best means letting go, and that’s ok too – because we are all passing through. We do not know the time or the place. For our animal friends we must help with that decision and as vets we must do so hand in hand with the family that loves that animal. For this is one of the biggest reasons that I am on the planet I think.
It’s truly heartbreaking to say goodbye to a beautiful animal. We have to do this weekly, and I am genuinely grateful to Channel 4 and to Winston’s mum and dad for allowing us to show this journey. I feel that it is extraordinarily important and that it reminds us all how precious life is and how we should all look after each other and the animals we love. There is no greater love than the love that says goodbye, because it’s morally the right thing to do. This selfless love, this painful heart, this profound sadness, is what winston’s mum and dad have shared with us tonight. I am deeply humbled and forever grateful that they trusted me and my team, that they allowed us to hold their hands and that they believed as I do that at the end of the day we must always do the right thing, no matter how painful.
Our hearts and our minds go out to Winston’s family tonight and always. Our sincerest sympathy and biggest hugs go with you tonight. We shall miss you Winston and thank you for the ray of light that you brought into our lives when you were with us. In this programme your memory lives on and will serve as a reminder to us that we are all fragile, we all need a hug some days, we all cry some days, and at the end of it all the only thing we get to keep is love.
RIP Winston. Thank you for the love. N xx