When pets face death | Bellevue woman offers animal hospice help to distraught owners

Michelle Nichols didn't have a choice with her 7-year-old Boxer. Her dog, McKenzie, who suffered from a hereditary heart condition, dropped right in front of her with a heart attack and died several years ago. In response, she helped found in-home caregiving, hospice care and end-of-life options for beloved pets.

Michelle Nichols spends time with her dog

Michelle Nichols didn’t have a choice with her 7-year-old Boxer.

Her dog, McKenzie, who suffered from a hereditary heart condition, dropped right in front of her with a heart attack and died several years ago.

“So that was devastating to me,” recalled Nichols, who has since founded the Bellevue-based non-profit organization AHELP – the Animal Hospice End of Life Project – a coalition of veterinarians, allied animal service providers and pet owners interested in providing education about in-home caregiving, hospice care and end-of-life options for beloved pets.

AHELP will host a “Friend in Need” open house on Feb. 16 in Kirkland.

As a passionate pet owner, Nichols has been through so many “dogs, cats, animals that I loved and have done the typical euthanasia because they had cancer or some other condition,” she said. “I just felt that was so unfulfilling. It felt so insignificant and empty and disrespectful – not the ending to a life that I had shared with a friend for years and years.”

So when her Boxer, Brodie, faced the end of his life two years ago, Nichols turned to a natural death.

Brodie also suffered with an irregular heartbeat and required intensive care throughout his life. As he got older, the family found out he also had a seizure condition.

“The animal hospital sent us home with a handful of pills because our vet didn’t do overnight care,” recalled Nichol’s mom, Carol Soukup, a registered hospice nurse who lives in Kirkland. “He thought if we continued to medicate his seizures that it would probably be okay and we’ll see you tomorrow.”

But Brodie’s condition worsened overnight. As his seizures kept coming, Nichols worried the pills would run out. Soukup put her skills as a hospice nurse to work and reassured her daughter.

“I was just there to say, you only have those pills, you have to give him another one. It’s not due, I don’t care. Give it – that’s what you have,” said Soukup, who reassured Nichols her pooch was not in pain.

Nichols knew she didn’t want to bring Brodie to the veterinarian for an emergency euthanasia in the middle of the night. So her family shared time with Brodie and said goodbye.

“The sun started to come up through the trees and everyone was waking up, except Michelle, who was still tired from being up all night,” recalled Soukup of the dying experience. “Brodie just lifted his head up and looked around as if to say, ‘Where’s Michelle?’”

Nichols came back upstairs, kneeled beside him and said, “It’s okay, Brodie, you can go,” said Soukup, crying. “The poignant family moment of supporting that dying process is so remarkably beautiful that you have to not be grieving for it, you have to be grateful for it.”

Nichols was amazed at how different she felt after loosing Brodie compared to the losses of her other pets and she understood the value that hospice support could bring to animals and pet owners.

“A birth and a death, they are both very sacred and you really are giving a gift if you are able to share it with your pet and make it meaningful,” said Nichols, a genetic counselor by trade. She noted what a difference it was between an emergency euthanasia under distress and having someone to “talk me down out of the tree, to say it’s all right.”

So that started her mission into the realm of animal hospice. It’s a new movement she found out as she attended seminars and went to house calls with veterinarians like Dr. Tina Ellenbogen, of Bothell, who performs in-home euthanasia. Nichols learned that pet owners can take care of a terminal or special needs pet at home if they are given the resources.

Last year, Nichols started her business, Partners to the Bridge, which supports companion animals and their families to end of life through home visits and case management. However, she soon discovered the community was unaware of what animal hospice is. So she turned her focus to AHELP to educate people about hospice, which supports the family as they provide increased caregiving to empower them and promote a healthy grieving process.

AHELP co-founders include Soukup, Ellenbogen, animal hospice author Lola Ball, of Redmond, and several area animal service providers.

Nichols emphasized that AHELP does not advocate telling pet owners they should approach end-of-life issues one way or the other. Rather the organization empowers people and gives them the resources and support to make those decisions themselves.

“We (AHELP) give you the information, try and answer all your questions, go through every step of the way to create the plan and then create the back-up plan and then create the alternate back-up plan so that you’ve been through that and you don’t have to make those spur-of-the-moment decisions,” she added.

Nichols noted there are currently several barriers to animal hospice. One hurdle is that only a handful of veterinarians embrace the concept, she said.

“Veterinarians are very much about not letting the animal suffer and that’s been the model,” she said. “If there’s a question of suffering, then we go to euthanasia because there’s this whole gray area of whether they are suffering or not.”

Soukup says planning is key for animal hospice.

Nichols’ 6-year-old European Boxer, Sora, was diagnosed with a form of pancreatic cancer last July. Sora had surgery, entered into palliative care and later hospice care at home. Nichols developed a hospice team and end-of-life plan with her veterinarian at Seattle Veterinary Specialists, her mother and other care providers within her support network.

“We had to chart our course and really use our gut about what we felt would be the right thing for our dog,” said Nichols. “As long as we could manage her blood sugar levels, she wasn’t in pain. So I felt like this is an animal that I could follow to a natural death if it turned out to work that way.”

Just before Sora passed away on Jan. 14, the family came down to the last handful of pain medication. Soukup went to the veterinary clinic at 1 a.m. and without hassle a veterinarian gave her more medication.

“Nobody else could have gotten that if they hadn’t prepared and had that situation set up,” said Soukup.

Soukup describes Sora’s last moments as “peaceful.” She lifted her head, reached out her paw to Nichols, who was asleep next to her dog bed and Sora rested her head.

“And it was feeling the empowerment that I have these pills, so I can use them, I can prevent it from getting that bad, that made us relax and breath and that’s what allowed Sora to let go,” said Nichols. “We were okay.”

More information

AHELP will host a free pet-friendly “Friend in Need” open house from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Feb. 16 at Seattle Veterinary Specialists, 11814 115th Ave. N.E., Kirkland. Honor the human-animal bond with a Valentine’s portrait by Northwest Dog Shots; $25 benefits AHELP. Contact Michelle at 425-223-5722 or michellednichols@gmail.com to reserve your session.

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