“If you had told me this is what I was going to be doing 10 years ago, I would have thought you were crazy,” Dr. Melanie Cohen, DVM says. “This is the part we dread.”
Born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa, Cohen’s parents owned a large family game farm in Namibia. The family spent school breaks there where the young girl followed the local farm vet as he cared for their wild game, retired racehorses, herds of cattle and sheep, chickens, ostriches and an orphaned giraffe.
“When I was six-years-old we had an injured ostrich who was unable to stand,” Cohen remembers. “Concerned the giraffe would crush some of her organs overnight, the vet fashioned a harness of branches and Dad’s old leather jacket. She sat in it off the ground. I thought he was the most amazing person in the world and knew then I wanted to become a vet.”
At 16, Cohen, who is Jewish, came to the United States to escape anti-Jewish terrorist activity in Cape Town.
“We were getting bomb threats at our Jewish day school,” she says. “A friend of mine lost her leg from the knee down at a Jewish-owned pizzeria.”
Cohen’s parents sent her to North Miami Beach where she lived with her grandparents. There she finished high school and went on to college where she met and married LCDR Barry J. Cohen. She graduated from the University of South Florida of Veterinary Medicine before moving to Annapolis where she was in private practice and began working with pets in their family’s homes.
“The first time I helped a dog in somebody’s home, she was big and in pain from bone cancer, so they didn’t want to move her,” Cohen says. “I found my true passion: the support, care and commitment of my sickest, terminal, disabled and/or geriatric patients and their families in the comfort of their home.”
Cohen witnessed her mother-in-law’s passing at home with hospice support and saw the gift of her passing surrounded by family in the place she felt most comfortable.
Cohen’s veterinary school friends, Mary Gardner, DVM and Dany McVety, DVM, founded Florida’s Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-home Euthanasia in 2011. In 2012, Cohen joined them as an Annapolis chapter.
“I started with a phone, a bag and the website,” she says.
The Cohens landed in Virginia Beach in 2014, where she started a Lap of Love chapter. Her family fell in love with the Hampton Roads area and set down roots. Today their son, Zachary, is seven and daughter, Abigail, is three.
As Cohen established roots here, it was a natural progression to open a locally based venture of her own: Angel Pets went live in March and serves all of Hampton Roads.
“Everybody knows me as Dr. Melanie,” she says. “I like the small connection and personable nature.”
The response to Angel Pets’ services has been amazing.
“Every day I have been almost fully booked. It’s given me the reassurance that this is where I’m supposed to be,” she says.
Angel Pets offers in-home hospice care, including nutritional support, pain management, environmental modification advice, fluid therapy, disease-specific advice, in-home compassionate euthanasia and cremation services. Dr. Melanie hand-carries the pet to the funeral home and usually has its urn back the next day. If needed, she delivers the urn to the family, giving her a chance to touch base.
“It’s nice to check on them and see how they’re doing,” she says. “Even if you spend the least amount of time in their home you almost feel like an extension of their family.”
In April, Dr. Melanie answered Anna and Malik Nowak’s call to help Obi-Wan, their 15-year-old Alaskan malamute mix. They are very devoted to their fur kids.
“In 2003, I came home from work one night and on my bed were two teeny, six-week-old puppies, Obi-wan and Bella,” Anna says. Bella was the alpha dog Obi deferred to and protected. There wasn’t anything Obi couldn’t leap over like a gazelle. He flushed birds out of bushes and brought Anna rabbits.
“I buried a lot of animals and we could barely keep him in,” Anna says. “He was an expert escape artist, smart, obedient, loyal, devoted, protective, loving, soft and fluffy.”
A couple of years ago Bella had a tumor removed and many other surgeries. Obi gave her space and watched over her while she was ill. Finally, Bella needed Dr. Melanie. She couldn’t eat or drink and they were losing the battle of caring for her.
“I called Dr. Melanie to come as soon as she could,” Anna says. “Bella died at 6 a.m. Dr. Melanie helped clean her and carried her out. The care she gave us was just amazing.”
Obi had never been ill until recently.
“Of everything I’ve seen, it makes me believe it’s a progressive neuropathy,” Dr. Melanie says after spending time with Obi when the Nowaks called.
“It’s quality of life,” Dr. Melanie says. “If there was something we could do, I would do it. But I feel we would be doing it for you and not for him. The most compassionate thing for him is to help him cross, surrounded by his family on peaceful terms.”
“I want everybody to know this is an option,” Anna says of Angel Pets. “I’ve put pets to sleep in a clinical setting. This just feels different.”
Dr. Melanie assists the patient to fall asleep with his loved ones. She can do a paw print and save a lock of hair for family members as they spend time with their fur baby.
“We take away all the pain, the anxiety of not feeling right,” she says. “Once he’s completely asleep, we will give him another medication so he crosses over peacefully. It helps him slip away up here (she points to Obi’s head). I need to know he’s going peacefully.”
“We would not have made it through Obi’s final hours without her guidance, help and compassion,” Anna says. “Obi hung on my every word, shadowing my steps his whole life. He waited by the door for me anytime I left and jumped and howled like a wolf when I came home. I believe he hung in there as long as he did because he didn’t want to leave me.”
Angel Pets advocates for families and their pets. If it’s something they cannot do personally, it’s important to Cohen to guide families to the right resources.
“We pride ourselves—my practice manager, Gina Highfield, and I—that we have an incredible amount of information and access to resources beyond hospice and end-of-life care,” Cohen says.
Dr. Melanie provides free or reduced-cost care for local animal rescues. She also helps spay/neuter and vaccinate cats from local feral colonies.
“I want calling Angel Pets to feel like calling a friend,” she says. “And know that we care.”
Angel Pets is a veteran family practice.
“We have a lot of understanding and appreciation for those who have served and are serving and for military spouses who are going it alone.”
Last year, Margo Drucker’s 13-year-old, beloved therapy collie, Morgan, spent her last night suffering terribly, but was too heavy to lift and carry to an emergency vet.
“No vet would come to the house to euthanize my wonderful dog who spent her life bringing joy to others,” Drucker says. “Dr. Melanie came immediately and with great compassion and a gentle touch, my precious Morgan was put to sleep forever. Dr. Melanie’s empathy for my loss helped me immeasurably.”
“I feel sad for the family when their pet passes away,” Dr. Melanie says. “But I feel a sense of relief for the fur kids. Each family and patient has a piece of my heart, and I am so thankful to have been able to help my patient pass with dignity, love and comfort.”
TO THE POINT:
Contact: Dr. Melanie Cohen