Guinea Pig Years

My son’s guinea pig passed away over the weekend. My husband discovered her laying on her side in the soft bedding. He thoughtfully placed her in a shoe box and brought her to my son’s room. I could see him choke back a little tear and swallow hard; but he collected himself quickly and we all went outside to find a spot to bury her.

As my husband dug a hole, we thought of all the other guinea pigs we have laid to rest over the years. It started in 2002. Fuzzball was the first. We had gotten Fuzzball and Sweetie as pets for both children when they were 5 and 3. They had been begging us for a dog. We were not ready to get one, so we tried to get away with lower maintenance guinea pigs.

Little did we know this was the start of an era- a decade’s worth of guinea pigs. It started within a few months, when we discovered the pet store had mistakenly given us a male and female instead of two females. Sweetie’s first litter produced 3 babies. We managed to pass them off to friends, although one eventually returned to us because the girl’s mom decided she wasn’t taking care of it properly.

We scheduled a neutering for Fuzzball, but two days before the procedure my then 3-year-old son decided to try his hand at breeding and snuck them into the same cage overnight. He obviously understood something about the “birds and the bees” even at that young age. I still remember him telling me:”If you hear the guinea pigs making noise at night, don’t worry, Mom. They’ll be fine.” Little did I know what he was planning, instead assuming he was telling me they were nocturnal creatures and likely to be awake at night. Sadly, Fuzzball did not recover  from his operation and was the first death my kids experienced. The consolation was that his final litter included 5 babies, one of whom looked like him.

Once the babies were weaned, we passed them off to the pet store, as we had now had 11 guinea pigs in 6 months. Sweetie needed company though, so we adopted  a female and named her Dozen. They both enjoyed a happy life for many years. My son often built mazes or castles out of his blocks and placed carrots and other treats in hiding places for them to find. He and my daughter would hold “Guinea Pig Games” to see whose pet was faster, better at finding food, or more adept at maneuvering through the mazes.

  

Eventually Sweetie died of old age. I never thought guinea pigs were supposed to live more than 4-5 years, but she must have been 7 or 8. After much begging my kids convinced me that Dozen was lonely so we compromised by adopting a rescued guinea pig- one who was already at least 3 years old. She was more shy at navigating the mazes, thus the name “Cautious” was bestowed on her. In 2010, when Dozen passed away, we repeated the adoption process to take in Fry.

Fry had very long fur and my son spent a lot of time grooming her. She was not interested in running the mazes though and he was spending less time playing with her. He still cleaned her cages and fed her regularly, but the amount of time he spent with her had decreased dramatically. We talked with him about the idea of finding another home for her, where she could get more attention and interaction possibly with another guinea pig. He was starting to accept the idea as what would be best for Fry.

So perhaps it was a blessing that she passed away before we had to take that step. She had had a good life and he had always looked after her. As my husband disassembled the cages and I cleaned up the stray bedding littering the floor , we remarked that this was the end of an era. Who could have ever predicted that we would have had guinea pigs for ten years? That is three-quarters the length of the lives of my children at this point.

They know we are not getting any more pets. We already have two dogs and a rabbit  (that is another story). I am sure they will always look back fondly on the guinea pig games and all the other fun times they had with their first pets. And I can reflect on those memories, while being thankful this chapter is finally closed.

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Nightmare on Main Street

Did you get spooked for Halloween? Did anyone play scary tricks on you? If not, then here is something very scary to think about.

Imagine that you or a loved one has a terminal illness. You have appointed a health care proxy and signed a DNR (do not resuscitate form). Just when it seems the end is near, a hospice worker shows up discovers this death was a suicide and calls 911. Even though the Proxy is displaying the DNR and saying these are the patient’s wishes, the ambulance arrives and transports him/her to a hospital for the next 4 days while the proxy battles with the doctors over what to do. What a nightmare! What went wrong?

Well this is what really happened to someone in my area a few months ago. I was horrified when I read the story in my local paper*. In my own family, there have been two deaths recently. One had battled cancer for over a decade; the other died less than a year after his diagnosis. Both had living wills, proxies and DNR orders. One died in a hospice facility which provided great comfort to him as well as to the family members. The other died peacefully at home under the care of a visiting hospice worker. Knowing we were following each of their end of life wishes made us feel more at ease. We had enough time to say our good byes and did not have to see them suffering.

But what if something had backfired, like in the case above? I understand the moral dilemma these health care professionals must face in order to watch a patient die. In order to relieve employees of this burden, the health organizations must create clear guidelines for them to follow in these situations. There must be a clear picture of what their role is and what measures they can and can not use to aid the patient.

Even though there seem to be more and more miracle treatments these days, we need to remember that in the end we are all mortal beings. We need to distinguish between passively allowing someone to die by withholding treatment (per their wishes) and actively killing someone. Euthanasia is a whole different issue. However, that brings us back to the above case where the patient tried to end her illness sooner by overdosing on Valium.

Apparently she had never been counselled about palliative care or been told she could get a POLST (Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment). The latter started in Oregon in 1991 and is now valid in 11 states including NY. This is a standard form with very clear guidelines expressing the patient’s treatment (or non-treatment) plans. Compassion and Choices is an organization that offers counselling on end of life treatment, but not enough people know about them or are referred to them by their doctors**. If more people knew the options that they had to ease their discomfort while they are in the process of dying, maybe there wouldn’t be cases like this where she felt she had to take life into her own hands.

As our average population age goes up and the use of miraculous life-extending treatments and devices increases it is extremely important that we figure out where to draw the line between our individual freedoms and the moral or religious beliefs of others. We need to make it clear that a person’s life belongs to him and as long as he has been informed of his health care choices and has signed the proper forms, the health care providers are clear of any moral or ethical obligation to provide unwanted medical assistance.

I know dying is a difficult issue, but if we don’t talk about it now it could become even more complicated in the future. Do you know there are now people living with artificial hearts? How will we be able to determine if their time has come if they are still powered by a generator? Politicians try to frighten people about Death Squads and being refused live-saving healthcare; but in reality the more frightening thing is when you have a terminal illness and are not allowed to die peacefully according to your wishes.

*Life interrupts an attempt to die at home by Cathleen Crowley   Times Union 9/25/11 .

**If you find this as shocking as I did, I recommend looking up the right to die laws in your state. Go to compassionandchoices.org for more information.

Post-mortem Insight: Why wait til it’s too late?

Yesterday my family and  I attended a memorial service for my father-in-law. It had been 9 months since his passing.  Our wells of tears had dried up and our minds were open to honoring his life accomplishments. Many people came up to the podium to speak of him- the challenges they faced together in their career, the obstacles that they overcame and the principles that motivated them. As his daughter in law, I had not known him during his career days. While I knew drips and drabs about his work, I never fully understood his personality and the drive that sometimes triggered conflicts of interest.

Listening to what people had to say about him yesterday  gave me so much insight into who he had been and gave me so much more respect for his ideals. I always knew what a warm, passionate person he was but this window into his other life outside of family gave me a whole new perspective. My children respectfully listened to the stories about their grandfather and one of them even got up to thank people for giving her this opportunity to learn about him.

This whole experience really got me thinking: why do we wait until someone dies to reflect on their life? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if families got together to share these stories at a time when you could still ask the honoree questions? There are so many things left to second guess. We only know the facts through other people’s eyes. What if we had a chance to clarify the rationale behind his choices; or ask what he was most or least proud of doing?

Children never seem to pay attention to what their parents do outside of the home. Sure they know what profession their parents have chosen, but they have their own lives to live and can’t bother with more than that. By the time they do become interested, they are likely involved in their own careers and families and have limited time for in-depth discussions. And then the grandchildren come along, but they are more interested in hearing about when grandpa was a little boy- not the ups and downs of his career.

So when is the ideal time to have these reflections? I wish I knew, but there has to be a better way…