For Melbourne vet Dr Emma Whiston, euthanasia is not just another part of the job. In fact, she felt so strongly about palliative care for pets that in 2004, she based an entire new business on it. Jessica Prince-Montague charts how this one decision made Dr Whiston a pioneer
Every vet knows that euthanasia is a necessary, but often regrettable, part of the job. At university, you are taught how to cure an animal to the best of your ability and where appropriate, put it to sleep. But you’re not taught how to nurture and support the owner through the hugely emotional process that ensues. This is something veterinarian Dr Emma Whiston, 43, came to recognise during the first 10 years of her career. It was an inkling that grew stronger the more she became experienced.
Eventually, in 2004, she saw room in the market to start a hospice and palliative care service that would fill this void for animal lovers. My Best Friend—the official name for her business—became Australia’s first dedicated home euthanasia service. In the decade since, she has helped hundreds of clients say goodbye to their beloved companions, in the most compassionate and caring way, in the comfort of their own homes.
Interestingly, Dr Whiston almost never even became a vet in the first instance. Growing up as the youngest of five children, her number-one passion was acting and until her teenage years, she was more intent on NIDA than vet school. But eventually, one defining factor changed Dr Whiston’s mind: her dad.
Dr Whiston’s parents emigrated here from Britain in the 1970s and her “very English” dad, Dr Nigel Clayton, set up a local vet practice upon arriving. “He always had this amazing way with animals in a very James Herriot type of way,” she explains. “I was so busy admiring Dad and helping him out that it didn’t occur to me becoming a vet was something I could actually do too.”
Dr Whiston says the family household in those years resembled a menagerie and she would often assist her father in caring for the animals, even when he performed surgery on the kitchen table. It only dawned on her that she could follow in her father’s professional footsteps around year 10, when it was also time to visit the careers counsellor. “I remember her telling me that I wasn’t smart enough to become a vet,” she says. “I went, okay, I’ll show you then.”
Dying with dignity
It was at Melbourne University that Dr Whiston excelled as a young vet student and also where she naturally learned more about the process of euthanasia. “It was very clinical, and still is in most places,” she says. “We were taught to cure the animal, but not in how to care for the human being.” Essentially, Dr Whiston found the scientific and textbook-based approach to ending an animal’s life completely at odds with the older-fashioned bedside manner her dad practised, and she yearned for a more empathetic option.
But after graduating with Honours, she was disappointed to find this mentality extended into the wider vet profession. “It was the way it had been done for so many years, so people figured, why fix it? The thing is, the process was a bit broken because animals would die a bit worried due to the unfamiliar setting, funny smells, other animals in the waiting room, and the fact they would be restrained on a high, cold table. Some animals were not given a pre-medication either, so they had the intravenous injection straight up, which can be quite a shock to their system.” In addition, she found most vets worked in 15-minute timeslots, which put added pressure on them to perform this highly emotional duty in between other consultations. Surely, she figured, there had to be a better way.
Unfortunately, Dr Whiston couldn’t find one, so she decided to create it herself. “By this time I was in practice,” she explains. “So I started dropping by after work if an animal needed euthanising. That’s how it started. I knew it was a much better way because at home, animals have familiar smells, they can be in their bed or the owner’s bed and people can cuddle their pets as they go off to sleep.” As demand grew and she became renowned for her unique, personalised service, it was a natural move for Dr Whiston to develop this “home visiting” into her own business, which she aptly named My Best Friend. Dr Whiston, however, does admit she knows her approach to death is quite specialised. “Most vets would prefer to cure something—go into surgery and fix a broken leg—than spend a lot of time on euthanasia. Colleagues think I am absolutely mad. I mean, this is all I do now.”
But clearly Dr Whiston is very good at what she does. Her motives all come from the most genuine of places, too. In previous articles, she has cited that up to 15 per cent of former pet owners refrain from adopting another animal because their experiences with the deaths of previous pets were too painful. Similarly, she has written that some 30 per cent of pet owners experience severe levels of grief they are willing to equate with losing a mother, father or spouse. A decade on since My Best Friend started, Dr Whiston’s number one goal remains for euthanasia to be “a valid treatment option born out of love” and if possible, the most peaceful and loving it can be. In her own words: “Death ends a life, not a bond.”
Playing her part
It’s clear Dr Whiston has found her niche. To date she has helped pet owners say goodbye to not only dogs and cats, but also pythons, sheep and rats. She is referred by—and more importantly, respected by—fellow vets in the Melbourne area. Likewise, word of mouth and repeat customers are comforted by her expertise and how comprehensive the service is. “My work includes pre-euthanasia guidance, which involves a consultation, phone call or lots of emailing,” she explains. “Then, the actual euthanasia and finally the support afterwards. I do feel like I have a duty of care to both my clients—the animals as well as the human beings.” Dr Whiston says she caters to all faiths and backgrounds and it is her mission to facilitate whatever pet owners desire. “I have a lot of Buddhist clients who often surround their pets with a ring of flowers, then do ritual chants, which is beautiful. Likewise, if the owners want to light candles, open a bottle of champagne, or play particular music to celebrate their pet’s life, then I facilitate exactly what they want.”
But surely spending so much of her time and energy on palliative care and death has to take a toll on the 43-year-old? This, says Dr Whiston, is why vets have such a huge burn-out rate. “You need to change emotional gears all day and sometimes people’s grief is too much for [vets], so they basically suffer emotional fatigue.” She combats this by adopting a technique called ‘compassionate detachment’, where you still care, but have just enough distance for it not to affect you. “It’s also imperative you nurture yourself—physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally,” she says. “Otherwise you cannot give the best of yourself to others.”
Dr Whiston does this by spending quality time with her family (she has a loving husband, Greg, as well as two children, Abigail, 12 and Tom, seven), meditating regularly, enjoying the odd massage, eating good food and indulging in a wine or two along the way.
She also still spends quality time with her dad, the one person who can genuinely understand—and act as a soundboard—for anything that might be concerning her. “He is 82 now, but physically and mentally he is still a very young, vital man,” Dr Whiston continues. “All my career I’ve had mentoring sessions with him, and we still do. You can’t buy what he has taught me.” She says the best way to describe what she has learnt from him is through a quote by respected human palliative care doctor, Dr Jessica Zitter: “Helping patients die takes as much technique and expertise as saving lives.”
Leading the way
As a pioneer in her field, Dr Whiston is keen to see end-of-life animal care expanded, so that it becomes more of the norm, rather than an exception. “Modern vets possess the wealth of scientific knowledge regarding the cure of patients, but less knowledge regarding the care of patients,” she puts simply.
It’s not a surprise then that Dr Whiston is keen to branch out into educating others. “I would love to lecture vet students at university and also become involved with vet nurses at TAFE level,” she enthuses. “I am now also being invited to vet clinics all over Victoria to speak about this and offer my advice on how they can improve their service.” She is also bolstering her own knowledge and expertise as a member of the International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, and even travelled to Colorado in 2012 to attend their second annual conference. As such, it’s apparent Dr Whiston would like Australian vets to embrace this “essential and evolving field”.
She says it’s gaining momentum and she is more than happy—and more importantly, capable—to lead the way. “This is my absolute passion. This is my life and my heart’s work. I am going to be doing this until I can no longer stand.”