When we took our Monty-boy, a large Alaskan Malamute, to be assessed as a therapy dog, we just knew he’d do well. He was gregarious, gentle and well behaved, so of course he passed the various assessments easily and was welcomed into the therapy dog programme. He and I were assigned to a local palliative care ward.
On arriving at the ward for our first visit, the ward clerk showed me where I could put my bag and introduced me to a group of staff who were having their morning tea in the staff room. When Monty saw all the people – and that they all had food – he raised his head and called out with a loud ‘WooWOOOO!’ and stood there with his tail wagging. I was worried that the volume and wolf-like sound of his greeting might have been inappropriate in a hospital (and it probably was!) but the staff were delighted. One of them gave him a piece of her banana and another one gave him a cracker. They asked all about him and told me how much the patients would enjoy seeing him.
Other staff came and said hello and patted Monty. With each new acquaintance, he put on what I called his ‘friendly ears’ – an expression comprised of him folding his ears back against his slightly lowered head and smiling. It was very endearing and it made him look less wolf-like.
We’d been on the ward for maybe ten minutes but hadn’t yet left the nurses’ station. I wasn’t worried. The visits were as much for the staff as the patients, and if the staff needed some doggy interaction, they were very welcome to it. One of the doctors became particularly fond of Monty and always made it her business to come and give him some pats and snuggles.
The ward clerk gave me the room numbers of patients who might enjoy a visit. As Monty and I moved along the hallways, staff and visitors walking towards us smiled and said hello and many of them asked if they could pat him. He was always very happy to stop and be patted and he always put on his friendly ears and wagging tail. There was no question that he lifted the mood just by walking through the place.
We came to one of the room numbers I’d been given. The patient wasn’t there so we moved on to the next room. Some family members were visiting and they turned when Monty and I appeared in the doorway. The patient was barely conscious but the family was keen to say hello to Monty and have a chat about him. They asked all the questions I usually got asked when I went out with him – about his breed, weight, age, how much he eats – but they would also ask additional questions, such as what kind of training he’d had to have for the therapy work, whether he belonged to me, to the hospital or to some other organisation, and how long we’d been doing the visits.
After leaving that room, we went to another of the rooms on the list but it was also empty. We went across the hall to another of the nominated rooms but the folk in there were both asleep. I hadn’t been told to, but I had already decided for myself that if a patient were sleeping I would leave them to it. It’s hard enough to get to sleep when you’re uncomfortable, unwell or in emotional distress, so I could well imagine how frustrating it would be to have finally dozed off, only to be awoken by some well-intentioned soul wanting to offer you a visit with their dog.
So I left the two slumbering patients and was just about to leave the ward. This first visit was only meant to be twenty minutes long, for Monty’s sake, and that time was up. Subsequent visits would be for an hour or so. In the room opposite, the one that had been empty a moment earlier, there was a very frail, very petite lady making her way from the ensuite back to her bed with the help of a walking frame. Although it was time to leave, I stopped in the doorway, as, out of all the room numbers I’d been given, this was the only one in which the patient was both present and awake. It would have seemed a shame not to stop.
The lady slowly turned around so she could sit down on the side of the bed and when she saw me and Monty in the doorway, she gasped and smiled widely. ‘OH, what a BEAUTIFUL dog!’ As she spoke, Monty pulled me into the room and straight towards her, friendly ears on and tail wagging. He never did that again with any patient – he always waited for me to lead him in. But on this occasion, it was like he’d just seen an old friend and reacted spontaneously. He went straight up to the lady and looked up at her, smiling. She plunged her hands into the thick mane around his neck and luxuriated in his soft fur as she told him what a handsome boy he was and told me how much she loved dogs. I introduced myself and took a mental note of her name, Lyn*, which was written on a sign above her bed.
Lyn started talking about dogs she’d known, and dogs she’d had to leave behind when she’d fled her native country many years earlier. She was a bright, articulate, cultured lady and she was about ninety-nine percent at peace with the fact that she was dying. She would have been fully at peace if it weren’t that she still had a cat at home – a very nervous but very much loved elderly cat. She knew her cat would not cope with being rehomed at that age, and was organising with the doctors to be allowed home one last time so she could have the vet come and euthanise it. Tears came to her eyes as she was telling me this. What a decision to have to make. When ‘putting one’s house in order’ before death, how sad to have to think of ending the life of a beloved pet. But maybe it would be a kindness, after all. She knew her cat best.
Lyn had been thinking to go outside for a cigarette when we’d arrived. She asked if we’d like to join her. I was mindful of the time we were spending beyond our advised twenty minutes, but Monty seemed to be enjoying himself, I was too, and Lyn clearly was. So we all headed slowly up the hallway and out into the garden. We sat down on a bench and Lyn lit up her cigarette. ‘I’m dying’, she said, calmly. I nodded. ‘I’m dying, and I’m ready to, you know.’
She told me some more about her life, and said what a wonderful, lucky life it had been, but that since her husband had died some years earlier and her children had families of their own, she’d become lonely. As we sat there, she explained that she’d been suffering from crushing, debilitating headaches and that she currently felt the residue of the one she’d had the day before. Still, she was cheerful, and wanted to talk.
Her candour surprised me. I’d never met her before that day yet she told me some very private things – even some things you wouldn’t normally want known. I guess as death approaches, there’s not really much to lose. The ego loses its hold and the soul is free to relate to others without the usual barriers we spend so much of our lives keeping up. Dogs are great ice breakers at the best of times and, as any therapy dog handler will tell you, they seem to provide VIP admittance into people’s lives at their most private and poignant times.
Lyn spoke glowingly of the staff at the facility, saying ‘They’re angels…They are angels, every last one of them. So caring, and not a single bad experience in the whole time I’ve been here’. She was a very sweet lady, full of kindness and love.
Unusually, Lyn stayed in the ward for about three weeks before she passed away. Most people only stayed for maybe a week. On each of my first three visits with Monty, I always made sure to drop in on her. On the final visit, she was sleeping when I arrived but her daughter, Jo, was there, sitting in a lounge chair between the bed and the window. Lyn had spoken about her on both of our previous visits with great love and concern.
Lyn must have told her about Monty’s visits because as soon as we appeared in the doorway, Jo waved us in. She had tears in her eyes but when Monty put on his friendly ears and wagged his tail at her, she smiled. We came around to where she was sitting and she leaned forward in her chair, wrapped her arms around Monty’s big, bear-like neck, buried her face in his fur and sobbed. She held him like that for maybe a minute and he just stood there calmly. He seemed to know that that’s all that was required. He didn’t try to wriggle free, or do anything at all. My heart was aching for this poor woman, and at the same time, I was touched by Monty’s gentleness and understanding of the situation.
When Jo sat up, she tried to wake Lyn because she knew she’d want to say hello to Monty. Lyn didn’t stir, so Jo took her hand and gently placed it on Monty’s head. ‘Look, Mum, it’s Monty. He’s come to visit.’ Lyn’s eyes didn’t open but she smiled widely and sighed as she feebly moved her fingers through his fur. At that point, Lyn’s sister came into the room. She’d been out to get a coffee.
Jo started asking me about Monty and talking about her own pets. While we were talking, Lyn woke up and started talking to her sister. They were quite animated and at one point, Lyn was waving her arms in the air. Jo smiled at me and shook her head at the sisterly banter.
I guess I was in there for ten or fifteen minutes that day, much longer than most visits last. I knew that Lyn must be near the end, and I didn’t want to rush out of there if Monty was still needed. He had provided a comforting hug for Jo, and several minutes of distraction for both her and her aunt, who had come over to join us after talking with Lyn.
One of the most helpful things the therapy dog teams do is to simply provide light relief by allowing the patients and their families to talk about something other than matters of life and death for a few minutes. This can lift the mood in the room and keep it lifted long after the dog has left. Even when death is imminent, people seem to appreciate and benefit from the levity a dog brings.
That day as I turned to leave Lyn’s room, Jo got up and hugged me. Through the tears that had returned, she thanked me for bringing Monty in and said she was glad she’d got to meet him. I felt honoured to have been able to provide such a service to this lovely family at such a difficult time in their lives.
Lyn died the next day. The day before, you could have taken her out of her bed and placed her in a restaurant or anywhere else where people might have an animated conversation and she wouldn’t have seemed out of place. Fully alive and aware, and facing death with a smile. I guess she was one of the lucky ones.
* Patient and family-member names have been changed to protect privacy.