The decision to make a mid-life career change can be prompted by many things. In the case of Dr. Keith Tillman, who had a successful, 15-year career in the field of information technology, the deciding factor was the loss of a beloved dog, Emerson, an Australian shepherd.“She’d been with us for nine years when she developed congestive heart failure,” said Tillman, 48. “The experience I went through in caring for her profoundly affected me.”“The vet who cared for Emerson almost had to care for my wife and me more than for Emerson because we were such basket cases. With extensive care, we were able to enjoy five more months with her before she succumbed to heart failure.”Those five months in what was essentially home hospice care for his dog led Tillman to the decision to pursue a lifelong goal of becoming a veterinarian. In 2001, at the age of 37, Tillman gave up his job and steady income to return to school while working for minimum wage as a veterinary assistant.“My wife was a licensed veterinary technician at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. I had to first complete the prerequisites for entry to veterinary school, which took me a year and a half, followed by four years as a full-time student in vet school. I then completed a one-year internship in small animal medicine and surgery.”In 2008, Tillman and his wife, Deb, moved to Silver Spring, Md., where he worked as an associate veterinarian at a large animal hospital in Washington, D.C. From there, they moved to Mooresville to be closer to Deb’s family, and he began a private practice in a small clinic in town.When Cooper, their Labrador/boxer mix, began to suffer from a debilitating arthritic condition, they made the difficult decision that so many owners of beloved pets are faced with. “Because Cooper had always been anxious in a car and even more so in the vet’s office,” Tillman said, “we chose to help her make the transition in the comfort of our home surrounded by the people who loved her. It was such a blessing to the family to see Cooper have a peaceful passing that Deb and I became strong advocates of at-home euthanasia.”“We asked ourselves why we hadn’t considered offering at-home hospice care and euthanasia for other folks as an integral part of our veterinary practice, and that was when the idea for Comfort at Home began to take shape.”In November, 2011, Tillman and his wife established Comfort at Home Mobile Pet Hospice and Euthanasia, serving the Charlotte and Lake Norman area. Their goal, he says, entails “focusing on the special needs of elderly and terminally ill companion animals, providing compassionate and personalized end-of-life veterinary care for beloved pets in the private and familiar surroundings of their own home. Quality of life is more important than quantity. When quality of life suffers, it is time to help your pet find peace.”“The veterinarian’s oath commits us to prevent and relieve the suffering of animals in our care, and we realized that hospice care at home fulfills that purpose quite well,” he said. “The primary goal of hospice care is maintaining quality of life, and when that quality is no longer there, it is time to intervene before the pet suffers. I see hospice care as becoming more commonplace.”Deb Tillman accompanies him on most home calls, which can come at any time of the day or night, and both avoid wearing white coats or scrubs. “We have found that some pets show stress associated with ‘white coat syndrome,’ and most pets are accepting of us as guests in their home. My role as a vet is to be an advocate for the pet that can’t speak for itself,” he says, “and it’s rewarding to know that we are helping people in their time of need.”“Our goal is to help people through the process by affording them the opportunity to share memories of wonderful experiences they have had with their pet. It can become a time when the stories just flow, like an open tap.”“With house calls, I can spend as much time as necessary to deal compassionately with the situation. In some cases you can’t and don’t insulate yourself from the grieving process. My wife and I have both sat with folks, held their hand and cried with them, as we did when one pet lover read, ‘The Rainbow Bridge’ as her dog was put to rest.”Many pet lovers have written to Tillman expressing their gratitude for the way in which he helped their four-legged companion find peace. “It is a week today, and as lonely as I am and as much as I miss her, I know in my heart she is in a much better place,” one wrote. “Believing we will be together again is what keeps me going. You are an outstanding and compassionate person who helped me through a seriously difficult time. Your compassion towards the human heart and all of God’s animals is overwhelming.”The Tillmans’ concern for the family continues after euthanasia. “Experts will tell you that pet loss is second only to the loss of a child in terms of depth of grieving, so we make referrals to support groups. We can also make referrals to a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in pet loss.”Tillman and his wife live in Mooresville with their own menagerie, including two dogs and three cats. “Grace, a 9-year-old Australian shepherd, is a ‘special needs’ dog, blind and deaf since birth. Bob Barker is a papillon/miniature pinscher we found through a rescue service. Kelley and Calli were feral cats, and Rowdy Rascal is a cat that had been brought to me for euthanasia. We adopted her instead.”“I grew up with dogs and cats and the odd hamster here and there,” Tillman said, “so I guess my life is destined to be bound up with the animals I love.”
Friday, Mar. 15, 2013
Vet provides at-home, end-of-life care for pets
Dr. Keith Tillman made a mid-career change that led to his starting Comfort at Home Mobile Pet Hospice and Euthanasia. BRUCE DUNBRIDGE
Keith and Deb Tillman with Rowdy Rascal, a cat that was brought to them for euthanasia, and Bob Barker, the Papillon/miniature pinscher they got from a rescue service. COURTESY OF KEITH TILLMAN
Bob and Deb Tillman with Grace, left, a 9-year-old Australian shepherd that has been bllind and deaf since birth. The other dog is Bob Barker, a the papillon/miniature pinscher they got from a rescue service. COURTESY OF KEITH TILLMAN
Learn more: For information about Comfort at Home Mobile Pet Hospice and Euthanasia, call 704-517-4934, or go to the website at www.comfortathomepet.com.