Paul Haeder, Author

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Dr. Sarah Crozier operates Crozier Veterinary Services: In-home Pawspice and End-of-Life Care. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Crozier)

Opinion | An Oregon veterinarian brings comfort to pet owners when it’s time to say goodbye

FINDING FRINGE | Sarah Crozier’s compassion and career are only part of her story. Her roots and her evolution are just as Paul K. Haeder | 4 Nov 2020

Dr. Sarah Crozier came to this column originally when she tended to my wife’s 18-year-old calico who was on her last legs and needed euthanasia triage. We wanted Ruby to be with us when putting her down, and with COVID-19 lockdown in place, the standard operating procedure for euthanizing a pet would be dropping her off at the Newport vet’s door and then a few weeks later receiving her ashes via USPS.

Dr. C to the rescue is no small statement. She runs a palliative care and in-home euthanasia service out of Philomath — Crozier Veterinary Services: In-home Pawspice and End-of-Life Care — but she makes numerous home visits to the coast.

Column logo: Finding Fringe by Paul K. Haeder
A periodic column profiling unconventional Oregonians who push the boundaries of social order. Street Roots logo Copyright. 

Once she had arrived, she quickly suited up in scrubs, a mask and long gloves while toting her med kit and disinfecting wipes.

Sarah’s bedside manner is attuned to the patient’s owners’ mental state. A sense of impending loss is a heavy cloud over the experience, but there also is a sense of celebrating a companion pet. She shoots that bright arrow through the pall of imminent final farewells.

“Tell me about something amazing Ruby used to do?” So, my wife and her grown daughter Mia recalled how this “reject” calico had been returned several times to the no-kill shelter Cat Adoption Team out of Tualatin, before the daughter said, “She’s perfect for our family.”

I’ve been down this road many times, since my overseas life with my military family included dogs — dogs in quarantine for rabies (when we were in the U.K.) and many litters of poodles and German shepherds.

Putting down Fido is both an emotional and impactful roller coaster.

Doctor C makes sure this process of sending companion pets into the afterlife is all about keeping them calm, semi-sedated, so saying goodbye is a healing moment and not one that is completely grief infused.

She’s only been in this new biz since October 2019. Then the pandemic hit, and she was forced to shut things down. “I had people calling leaving desperate messages, even though my phone message and website announced I wasn’t coming to people’s homes.”

Lucky for us, Doctor C recently re-energized her services with more relaxed lockdown measures. She was adamant that she was definitely not avoiding anyone who wanted her services but couldn’t get through: “Anyone reading this article, if there are any clients who called me and never got a call back, I want to apologize to them personally. Emotionally, I was incapable of calling back. There were clients’ messages I would listen to that would make me cry.”

She says she got up to 12 calls a week during the March-to-July shutdown. It broke her heart that she couldn’t do anything.

The vast majority of her patients seek her out for euthanasia services. In addition, more veterinarians are learning about Crozier’s “pawspice” and euthanasia practice. She emphasized how she is a bridge (or intermediary) between the vet handling the pet’s medical care and the owner who wants to know if there is anything else that can be done for the dying animal.

We also talked about clients who might not be able to afford to pay for her services. The fact is a growing number of people in the U.S. have pets, considering them both personal companions and emotional/physical support animals.

I’ve advocated on many occasions for homeless veterans and their families as a case manager to allow their emotional support animals as part of the team inside a homeless facility. The misguided attitude is that animals would be better cared for by someone not living on the streets. Unfortunately, in some instances homeless citizens’ pets’ leashes get cut while they are sleeping. Police sweeps of camps also send animals to the pound.

STREET ROOTS NEWS: Most cruelty complaints against homeless pet owners are baseless, says Multnomah County Animal Services (July 2019)

Study after study demonstrates homeless people with pets are drastically less likely to get depressed or engage in risky behaviors than those without animal friends.

“These pets are their only friends,” said Michelle Lem of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.  She published an article covering this topic in the journal Anthrozoos. “The only way that they’ve experienced unconditional love. These pets have saved their lives in many cases.”

In my days working with people experiencing homelessness, I’ve had a copy of the 2013 book “My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals” to loan to recalcitrant supervisors and others poo-pooing the arguments on why homeless folks need their companion animals.

Dr. C couldn’t agree more.

She (sort of) left her heart in Georgia

Sarah was born in Athens, Ga., in 1985, into a family with two older brothers and an older sister and a younger half-sister and brother. She moved around a lot with her family, and she ended up with her mom, a single parent who got jobs in Athens, Atlanta and Gainesville.

She’s a product of the suburbs and a private Christian school system. Her mom was an elementary teacher for the Fellowship Christian Academy.

She told me that early on she wanted to be a zookeeper, much influenced by going to the Atlanta Zoo. These are a 5-year-old’s dreams. “Taking care of exotic animals sounded super cool,” she said. “However, I distinctly recall learning what a zookeeper does — a lot of shoveling poop. It is not like I first thought — interacting with Koko the gorilla using sign language.”

It was 7 years old when she convinced herself she was going to be a vet. Sure, incidents like a car-wounded bird she found, mending it up and letting it go, were among the events galvanizing her desire to go to medical school. “Looking back, I am very lucky that the wren lived.”

Parakeets, hamsters and rabbits. It was one particular rabbit that necessitated “the kid Sarah” going to the vet on several occasions. “One rabbit had a tooth malalignment, a malocclusion. We had to take it to the vet to get the teeth filed down. A couple of times I got to go back to where the vets and animal techs worked.”

Her great-grandfather was a doctor, and Sarah said her dad always wanted to attend the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Organic chemistry was his Achilles heel. He applied to vet school twice and made it onto the wait list the second time. But he had a growing family, and he couldn’t continue to keep applying and hoping to get in.”

Her dad, Bill Crozier, ended up working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a farm loan officer.

Born into Christianity, and then an exit

By the time she was 16, questions like, “Why are we here?” and “Who am I?” would be enough for Sarah to believe the conservative grip of the Christian school wasn’t enough for her to succeed in life and pursue her intellectual and personal dreams. She enrolled herself in a high school integration program at Kennesaw State College.

“In many ways, it was an excellent move that I was with older teenagers and adults” where those big questions would be allowed.

She was so absorbed in school and the goal of becoming a vet, other aspects of her “self” were not being explored, she said, including dating and relationships. Leaving the church and her school was tough: It had been her whole world. She recalls how some of her teachers were “very threatened by me and my questions.”

“It’s a kind of community with lots of ways to identify with those around you. They call it faith, and when you lose that, you feel unmoored, especially in your mid- and late teens.”

She tells me that she settled on some form of Buddhist belief. “I can’t prove that there is not a god. I am agnostic with theistic leanings. If anything exists, then something must be eternal. That eternal thing could be called ‘God.’”

Second existential challenge – a new way of being

The father’s dream came true in Sarah: She got accepted as a Bulldog for the University of Georgia vet school.

That was March 2010 when she found out. Her personal goal was to traverse the Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail is about 2,200 miles long. She started in February, and she was shooting for 25 miles a day to make the end date she was hoping for: the start of vet school.

A major snowstorm forced her off for three weeks. But back on the trail, she met mostly white guys on the same journey, and also looking for companionship. Her attitude was clear: “I am here to make miles, not friends.”

Then came Erin. She had also started hiking the trail solo. Erin had first backpacked on the trail as a child and now was driven to complete it, Sarah said. “Long-distance hiking provided her a pause to consider where to go next in life. She had been a camp director in Montana and a police officer in Georgia before that, but she knew that neither of those were the right path for her.”

So, the determined, focused Sarah, never before on a date, here at age 24, was writing a daily journal about this new friend in her life, Erin, and newly discovered emotions and feelings.

“For me, it started off as another notch in my belt, this hike. We both ended up discovering each other.”

A day on the trail, she said, is like a month of dating. “Plus, you’re in your own head a lot.”

Sarah and Erin overlooking the mountains
Sarah met Erin when they hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2010. They got married in 2012.Photo courtesy of Sarah Crozier

Sarah had to get off the trail in West Virginia, about 1,000 miles of hiking later. She tore a meniscus and was in constant pain. Erin continued and finished, earning the title of “2000 Miler” as a thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

They kept a long-distance relationship going, with letters and phone calls. The plan was to meet up in Athens, get an apartment, and then Sarah would go to veterinary school and Erin would look into graduate programs at the University of Georgia.

A week before classes began, the first application to another vet school, Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, notified her that she had been accepted. Erin encouraged her to make the trip.

She counts April 10, 2010, as their official anniversary date. They were married in May 2012, in Georgia, which did not recognize a gay marriage at that time. Then, in August that same year, they tied the knot officially in British Columbia.

“I was very clueless about my own sexual identity prior to meeting Erin.” And in Alabama and the South, she said, “it didn’t feel safe to be out and proud. We were very closeted. People would often ask if we were sisters.”

All those journals sent back home clued her mother into the fact that her daughter was “maybe” leaning toward being a lesbian. “There is still some tension in my family, but most people are very loving and have accepted us.” Sarah said she’s lost two very close friends who basically said same-sex unions were wrong biblically.

Erin received a doctoral internship at Oregon State University, and the two moved here in July 2016 with the intention of moving back to Georgia in 2017 after Erin completed the internship. “We fell in love with the valley. There is enough agriculture and ruralness to remind us of home. We had already started working toward having a child, and we felt that this would be an ideal place to raise him.”

Bennett Blaze Crozier was born in November 2017. Erin carried, and the donor, Tony, “is a wonderful man. He has donated to seven queer families.”

There are many more sideroads a story like this could take. We talked about the book and movie “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, a Portland author.

But the work Sarah Crozier does to salve emotional wounds of pet owners with a companion who just was put down is compelling for me, a former communications teacher.

I asked her, since understanding animal behavior seems to be the cornerstone of working with people’s pets, how do veterinarians go about learning these tools?

“Human behavior is a whole different beast. In the same way that I learned most of my animal behavior out in the field, I learned most of my communication skills while working in veterinary clinics. While I was going through Auburn’s vet med program, there was a brief class on client communication in which Dr. Sara-Louise Newcomer did a wonderful job teaching us how to connect with clients. I personally believe that this type of course needs to be longer and more comprehensive, and I think Auburn may have expanded it a bit after I graduated, but at least it was a start. The adage ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ is something I strive to live by.

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