Fri. Dec 8th, 2023

Dr. Jason Doll had a hard time watching pets suffer through their final moments, so he became a traveling vet who guides animals through a more gentle end of life.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — It’s not often we get personally involved in stories, but I felt like this one was important to share. Like so many, I didn’t know much about at-home veterinary care until my 10-year-old dog Jackson collapsed in the driveway last summer.

The emergency vet determined that a few health issues had put him in congestive heart failure, and while she helped him that day, she prepared us for the fact that it would happen again and that we should start making plans.

We found a vet who came to the house, and while Jackson lied in the bed we bought him as a puppy, two separate shots helped him painlessly fall asleep and then die in peace.

Nothing prepares you for that guilt. Did we do the right thing? Did we end his life too quickly? 

Months later I met an end-of-life veterinarian with Lap of Love, which is an at-home care network for pets. Dr. Jason, as his families call him, spoke about quality of life and quality of death, giving pets a more peaceful ending. 

He said guilt is one of the main reasons people wait until their pet is suffering to make the choice for euthanasia. His job is to help families work through that and find their pets a peaceful path over the rainbow bridge.  

Dr. Jason invited our cameras to an end-of-life appointment with him to better understand what he means. 

(Learn more about Lap of Love here)

Death with Dignity

In 2019, Maine became the ninth state to enact an aid-in-dying law. The Death With Dignity Act allows terminally ill adults to request medication that will end their life. 

While this may be a new option for humans, it has always been an option for pet owners. Unfortunately, Dr. Jason told us, that choice is often made on an operating table or in a stressful environment. 

Dr. Jason only makes house calls, where the pet is more comfortable. But the option for this at-home care is still so widely unknown. In fact, the family we met during his appointment had heard about it from a friend who was living in England. 

Dana and Chief

When we followed Dr. Jason through the door of Dana McQuinn and Devron Wilkinson’s home, we were greeted — slowly but surely — by their golden retriever, Chief. Dana and Devron have been together just a few short years, but Devron had grown to love the big red dog who’d been by Dana’s side for nearly 15 years. 

“We saw a sign on the side of the road,” Dana fondly remembered about the first time she and her son saw Chief. “We went in, and there were 14 golden retriever puppies.”

Chief was the biggest of the group and was lovingly known as Big Red.  

“He loved the water and went for many swims,” Dana said, who had just gotten home from a final trip to the beach with her dog.

It was a very good final day for Chief, who had been struggling with health issues that would only have gotten worse. At the recommendation of their veterinarian, Dana and Devron found Dr. Jason to talk through Chief’s end-of-life care, and made the choice to say goodbye to Chief in his own home, in his own bed.  

“We think of a natural death with humans sometimes and unfortunately, a natural death with a pet is very rare,” Dr. Jason said. “It’s often when their loving family isn’t there.”

In any Lap of Love appointment, the doctor first talks with the family about any medications or declines in the pet, confirming what can and can’t be done to help, and then explains the process of euthanasia.

“I’m going to give Chief a big dose of pain medication and sedation under the skin just like a vaccine. I’ll probably give it right between the shoulder blades. And then within about five to 10 minutes, he’ll be on cloud nine, and that’s the easiest way for him to get to the rainbow bridge, is on cloud nine,” Dr. Jason explained. 

But first, a rare treat for a dog: chocolate Hershey’s Kisses. 

“One more before you go to sleep, bud. You’ve had a good, long life,” Devron said to Chief. Dana piped in adding, “Yes, you’ve had the bestest life, and it’s OK.”

A few more hugs and kisses and stories were shared. And something you wouldn’t expect at a time like this: laughter. 

“My Tinder site was me walking with him. My son took photos of us on the beach,” Dana said to Dr. Jason, to which he responded, “He was Cupid? You were Cupid!” 

All three had a chuckle over that story and a few others about the mischief the big red dog would get into. 

Then, of course, a few tears. 

And when Dr. Jason asked if they were ready, Dana said yes, then leaned in and whispered, “See you later, Chief … I’ll never forget you.”

From a veterinary hospital to a Subaru

Dr. Jason works entirely on the road, making house calls directly. He works with Lap of Love, a national at-home vet care organization that also offers group or one-on-one therapy with families, and many other resources to help face end-of-life care. 

“I found Lap of Love after a loss myself,” Dr. Jason said. “My mom died from COVID complications.”

He told us it can be difficult for others to understand, but working with people through one of the worst days of their lives is one of the most meaningful careers he could ask for — helping them face not only a quality of life in their pets but also a quality of death.

“I think people who have not seen animals in pain or distress don’t really understand what seeing that can do to someone. And that’s again why veterinary medicine has the highest rate of suicide of any medical profession, and so that’s why I’m so glad I’m sort of giving gifts all day,” Dr. Jason said, who started his career at a veterinary hospital.

With blankets and a photo of his mother in the back of his Subaru, Dr. Jason brought Chief to his final resting place and offered Dana and Devron continued support in the aftercare.

“I think not just celebrating their life with you but how they’re going to go onto their next journey, where they will wait for you until you go onto that next journey with them, too,” he added. 

End-of-life regret

We followed up with Dana McQuinn two weeks after she and Devron said goodbye to Chief. There was no regret. Dana said she felt reassured through the process. 

“[Dr. Jason] afterward mentioned something about opening a window to let [Chief’s] spirit soar. And believe it or not it was so helpful, because we opened that window, and I really could feel it,” Dana said. 

There’s a work in progress now in her backyard — a garden that will feature Chief’s sticks that he carried home from the beach or from his walks through the nearby park. 

Despite the loss, Dana told us she feels a sense of peace. 

“It was a wonderful experience, which sounds crazy, but there was nothing that was tugging at my heartstrings, except for the loss of our best buddy.”

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