A death in the family
BY MARK KONKOL | firstname.lastname@example.org November 26, 2011 12:49PM
Updated: January 26, 2012 6:32PM
Maxx Hill Warren of Irving Park dedicated his life to making people happy.
A devoted companion and protector, he despised formalities and insisted on being called only by his first name, like Oprah and Regis. Maxx was short in stature, but tough, and refused to be pushed around by bullies. But folks who knew Maxx best say his bark was worse than his bite. Maxx was born with an impressive pedigree, but abandoned by his mother at an early age and banished to live on a farm in the Chicago suburbs. In 1998, Kristin Hill Warren, a Chicago mortgage broker, adopted Maxx. They lived together in the city — most recently with Kristin’s husband Eric Warren and daughter Samantha Warren — the rest of his life. On November 13, 2011 , Maxx, who suffered from congestive heart failure, died at home. He was 72 — in dog years.
Maxx was short in stature, but tough, and refused to be pushed around by bullies. But folks who knew Maxx best say his bark was worse than his bite.
Maxx was born with an impressive pedigree, but abandoned by his mother at an early age and banished to live on a farm in the Chicago suburbs.
In 1998, Kristin Hill Warren, a Chicago mortgage broker, adopted Maxx. They lived together in the city — most recently with Kristin’s husband Eric Warren and daughter Samantha Warren — the rest of his life.
On November 13, 2011 , Maxx, who suffered from congestive heart failure, died at home.
He was 72 — in dog years.
Bright yellow leaves tumbled from trees lining Hoyne Avenue on the day death made a house call.
Dr. Lisa McIntyre rang the bell. A traveling veterinarian from Naperville, she carried with her a black fleece blanket and a black suitcase. She wore a knit poncho and a somber face.
She was there to treat a patient, Maxx the dog, who was suffering from congestive heart failure. Maxx, a 14-year-old Maltese, hadn’t eaten for nearly two weeks. He refused to take his medication, the highest dose allowed. And over the last 24 hours, Maxx rarely took a sip of water.
Maxx’s owners, Kristin Hill Warren and her husband, Eric Warren, hoped against hope that Maxx would get better. Their beloved companion had survived the peaks and valleys of health scares before.
“This was just a valley he wasn’t coming out of this time,” Eric says. “He’s just shutting down.”
For weeks, Kristin and Eric cried about Maxx’s declining health. They talked with their friends and the vet at PetSmart about whether it was time to end Max’s suffering. Kristin adopted Maxx from Lambs Farm 14 years ago, when she was single, lonely and struggling trying to make a career for herself. She didn’t want to let Maxx go.
But if she did nothing, she knew that one day soon the tiny white dog’s lungs would fill with fluid. Death by suffocation would be violent and painful.
They had to make a choice. Maxx didn’t have much time left.
A final kindness
Nearly every week, McIntyre makes a similar house call.
In-home pet euthanasia has become a growing part of The Welcome Waggin’, her traveling-veterinarian business.
That final house call costs a premium — about $250, which includes euthanasia services, plus an extra $50 transportation fee. Cremation costs extra, too.
But some pet owners could pay even more if they make an emergency trip to an all-night veterinary hospital.
No one’s sure exactly how many pets are put down at home each year, but more veterinarians than ever are making euthanasia house calls, says David Kirkpatrick, spokesman for Schaumburg-based American Veterinary Medical Association.
“We do not track actual numbers, but it’s certainly a growing trend, particularly with more pet owners looking for ways to more personally and, in some ways, conveniently deal with end-of-life issues,” Kirkpatrick says. “We are hearing more vets are performing the service. And more pet owners are requesting it.”
There are reason for that. More than 59 percent of American households have pets. Over the last several decades, folks have started to treat their animals more like family and less like property. A pet’s death can be traumatic for owners, like losing a good friend.
“People view veterinary hospitals as a sterile environment or a place you go for a medical crisis,” McIntyre says. “I don’t think that is the appropriate place to say goodbye to their animals. I think being at home affords comfort and privacy, and I think it removes a great deal of anxiety on the animal’s part, as well as pet owner’s part, as they have to say goodbye.”
For weeks, Kristin and Eric watched Maxx’s health deteriorate. They didn’t want Maxx to suffer. They didn’t want Maxx to die on a cold, metal table at an animal hospital. They certainly didn’t want strangers in the vet’s lobby — parents with children taking puppies and kitties for routine vaccinations — to see them leave in tears.
So last Saturday, Kristin called McIntyre, who agreed to come over at 10 the next morning.
The visit would be Kristin’s gift, a final kindness, for Maxx.
‘It was time’
On Sunday morning, Maxx walked in to the living room, his paws slipping on the glossy hardwood, to sniff a stranger’s pants leg.
For the past few days, all Maxx had done was sleep and pace around the house, a modest A-frame. Kristin bought the place because it had an extra-wide lot with a side yard perfect for her dog.
“This is Maxx’s house,” Eric says.
Kristin lifted Maxx onto their bed, where Maxx sleeps every night.
McIntyre offered Maxx a tiny beef-flavored treat. A last meal. Maxx refused it.
As McIntyre explained to Kristin and Eric what would happen next, Maxx jumped off the bed and made a slow lap around the house. Maxx returned to the water bowl, took a long drink and returned to the bedroom.
Samantha Grace Warren, just 4 months old, woke up from a nap and started to cry. Eric picked her up and cradled her. He laid Samantha on the bed next to Maxx, the girl’s first doggie.
Whenever Samantha cried to demand a nightly feeding, Maxx always followed Kristin into the baby’s room and waited, like a protector, until the baby went back to sleep.
On Saturday night, Samantha slept through the night for the first time.
“It’s like Maxx’s job is done now,” Kristin says.
Kristin put Maxx back on the bed, gently stroking her dog’s velvet coat.
The past few days had been especially difficult for Kristin and Eric. So many tears.
“Last night, it sounds funny but . . . ” Eric says, stopping mid-sentence.
For a moment, he sobbed.
“I had a conversation with Maxx. He told me it was time,” Eric says. “That helps you, you know . . . when it comes to realization and acceptance.”
McIntyre opened her bag and pulled out a syringe filled with a heavy sedative.
“This is the part I expect him to react to,” she says. “Anything we can do to distract him. Scratch his ears if he likes that.”
She inserted the needle and injected the drugs into a vein. Maxx let out a series of high-pitched squeals, shaking his back leg. Kristin and McIntyre petted Maxx to calm him.
“You’re such a good dog,” McIntyre says, reassuring Kristin that Maxx’s yelp was a reaction to irritation from the injection. In just a few seconds, Maxx lay down on the blanket. Samantha cried.
“Come pet him, honey,” Kristin says to her husband, who leaned over the bed to rub Maxx behind the ears.
“If there was a candidate for doggie heaven, it was this little guy,” Eric says.
McIntyre talked in almost a whisper, consciously trying to create “positive energy” and to be a “comforting presence.”
The medication worked faster than usual.
“He doesn’t have the light in his eyes that I remember seeing in him,” McIntyre says.
Kristin last saw that sparkle on Halloween. Maxx loved his pumpkin costume.
“All right,” Eric says, petting the family dog for the last time. “Bye, Maxx.”
McIntyre quietly speaks directly to Maxx for his owners’ sake.
“We’re going to let you go . . . release you from your body,” she says. “It doesn’t want to help you anymore and do what you want it to do. You’ve been such a good boy, we’re just going to do what’s right for you.”
McIntyre reassures Kristin and Eric on their decision.
“I think it’s a gift,” she says. “It’s a huge responsibility, but I think he gave every sign in the book.”
Then, McIntyre slipped a tourniquet over Maxx’s leg.
“He looks like he’s sleeping,” Kristin says.
McIntyre inserted a needle filled with a barbiturate overdose that would stop Maxx’s heart.
“What you will see is his breaths will stop in a minute or two,” she says. “And then I’ll listen to make sure his heart has stopped.”
“He won’t feel this?” Kristin asked.
“He’s not feeling anything,” McIntyre says. “He’s not aware what’s going on.”
Almost immediately after McIntyre injected the final shot, Maxx’s chest stopped moving. Kristin gently closed Maxx’s eyelids.
McIntyre listened for vital signs and confirmed that Maxx was gone.
“That was quick,” Kristin says. “I could tell right when it stopped. This was more peaceful than I thought . . . This was nice.”
Kristin unclipped Maxx’s collar and handed it to her husband, who held their daughter close to his chest.
Eric set the collar — tiny white bones printed on a faded red strap — on the dresser next to their wedding picture.
McIntyre wrapped Maxx in a thick, fleece blanket and carried him outside. Later, she would take Maxx’s body to be cremated.
Kristin and Eric sat on the couch in the living room.
“It was really peaceful for me,” Kristin said. “It actually made it better. He slept in that bed for years. For me, it was peaceful . . .
I don’t know why. It was just warm . . . You think of him laying there and his spirit is leaving him and going to heaven.”
Kristin says they plan to put together video of Maxx’s best days for Samantha.
They have plenty of footage. Until Samantha was born, Maxx was their baby.
They want their daughter to remember her first dog, the best dog.
In a few days, McIntyre will knock on the door of another owner with a terminally ill pet.
She considers her work an act of kindness.
“I hope that by going into people’s houses that — Kristin and Eric especially — they have some closure. That this was a peaceful experience for them. Their last memories of Maxx . . . they’ll be able to focus on Halloween . . . and times he sat up at night by Kristin,” McIntyre says. “I want them to go on and be open to accept another pet in their life. And for their daughter to have another dog some day.”