Debbie Ysselstein is an experienced dog owner, but preparing for her final weeks with Leopold, a beloved dachshund, was especially difficult.
After a long, happy life of nearly 17 years, a heart complication began catching up with him last summer, and Ysselstein knew she was about to face that tough decision every pet owner fears.
What she didn’t expect was her options to be so limited.
Pandemic restrictions were still preventing people from entering veterinary clinics for euthanasia procedures, and she shuddered at the idea of leaving Leopold alone during his final moments.
“I talked to friends that lost pets during the pandemic and it just tears your heart out because (they) couldn’t even be with them at the end,” said Ysselstein, a Stratford resident.
That’s when Ysselstein and her husband, Rick, discovered Dr. Erica Dickie, a Perth County veterinarian who had recently opened a mobile veterinary clinic focused specifically on end-of-life care. After setting up an appointment, “I think she spent well over an hour with us,” Ysselstein said, “just talking about what our end goal was with Leopold and how we wanted to let him go with dignity and on his terms.”
With advice from Dickie, Leopold was as comfortable as possible over the following four months. He even enjoyed one more trip up to the cottage with his best friend, Danny, the Ysselsteins’ other dachshund. When it was time to say goodbye, Leopold was with Danny and the Ysselsteins under a willow tree in the backyard.
“Those four months that we had him were like a gift because we certainly didn’t think we would have him that long,” Ysselstein said. “It wasn’t cheap to have that type of service… and I’m sure some people thought we were crazy, but it was worth every penny. It was just an incredible experience. ”
Dickie understands the sorrow pet parents face when they lose a long-time companion to illness. She decided to launch Black Creek Mobile Veterinary Services after a kidney infection led to the death of her 14-year-old cat, Smokey, in 2018.
“I had him from before vet school, all the way through vet school, marriage, children, (my first) house, all the big milestones in my life,” she said. “(The experience) really opened my eyes up to the significant grief and all the questions and feelings that come in caring for an ailing pet. It was hard for me to manage that so I just felt like I could do so much more in the veterinary field to help pet parents in that time. ”
Dickie is originally from Kitchener but is now based in Sebringville. She graduated from Ontario Veterinary College in 2011 and worked in various clinics before deciding to start her specialized practice. After becoming certified through the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care, she worked her way through the Stratford Perth Center for Business’s Starter Plus program.
Dickie had no idea she would be opening her mobile clinic during a pandemic, but the challenges pet owners have faced over the past two years have highlighted a need for the type of service she offers.
An exploding number of new pet owners has also put a strain on many brick and mortar clinics at a time when staffing shortages are common.
“People are finding it difficult to find veterinary care,” Dickie said. “The biggest thing is communication. It’s just so limited in a general practice. There’s quick phone call backs, quick appointments, and I just felt like a mobile vet I was able to provide that dedicated one, two, three hours for hospice and palliative care that was needed to really have those deep conversations. ”
Dickie began her practice servicing in a 40-kilometer area of Perth County. She’s since expanded that to 60 kilometers and has hired an administrative assistant and a registered veterinarian technician to help with demand.
In-home euthanasia is not the only service Dickie offers. Black Creek provides quality of life consultations through a telehealth platform and the clinic also offers aftercare and memorialization services to pet owners.
Clients have expressed a wide range of interest in the clinic’s various services and some are more interested than others in being present throughout the entire end-of-life experience, Dickie said. That surprised her at first, but the important thing, she said, is offering pet owners the opportunity to make personal decisions about how they say goodbye to their companions.
“End of life conversations are really difficult,” she said. “Sometimes people don’t know… that they have the opportunity to say what type of experience they’re looking for. We really just continue to offer our services throughout the pandemic as safely as we can while also hoping to maintain that connection between the pet parent and their pet.
“My mission is to honor the bond the life and the love. That’s why I started this practice. “