There's a important weapon in healthcare and it comes with four paws. As one half of a pet therapy team, that recently visited a patient in hospice care, I came away with a gnawing and unsettled feeling in my gut.  Not like the sadness of someone making peace with death but something more than that.  With the kind of technology used all the time, I wondered, have we lost a bit of our humanity through the sphere of anonymous modern day life?

We are given a rare opportunity, indeed a privilege, to visit with patients and we probably do a whole lot more people watching than even we realize.  The more visits we make, the more we really observe people and this visit was no exception.  We've met all kinds of people, the sick and well, from of all walks of life and experience and this day was no exception. Observing them provides a window into their world.

While making rounds, I came across a patient who was conscious and comfortably chatting with visitors in his room.  That's somewhat rare since most hospice patients are barely awake. I asked if they'd like a visit with Pet Therapy and both he and his wife enthusiastically said, "Oh yes, definitely--we love dogs!"  They introduced me to their daughter and granddaughter who were in a  corner.  We exchanged greetings and they commented on how handsome Sam was and how glad they were to see him.  Then a few moments later, the daughter and granddaughter resumed whatever they were previously doing on their cell phones.  O-kay, I thought.  We've all seen people in restaurants texting to each other or to mutual friends and while pathetic, it's just not surprising anymore. 

Yet, when someone is in hospice, they generally don't have a whole lot of time left.  Their time is short, it's precious and you'd think visitors (particularly family members) would be more inclined to actually spend it visiting rather than being plugged in to some mobile device.  The patient and his wife were insistent that we come in and they proceeded to tell stories about dogs they'd owned during their lives, or dogs that they know, the usual small talk. 

They were warm and gracious humans, the kind of people you admire for being genuine, humble, down to earth and Sam was particularly drawn to the wife.  Whenever we visit patients, I know this goof-ball dog will first go to the person who needs him the most.  He has a knack for sorting out people's energy.  He'll visit with all of them in the room eventually, but will always go to the one who needs him the most...first.  Sam hardly sniffed at the two feverishly typing away on their cell phones.  He seemed to instinctively know they were totally disengaged; it just took me a while to realize that.  I kept thinking surely they'll make some comment or recall a happier shared time.  But they didn't.  Sam couldn't get enough of the wife though.  His tail wagged furiously and he tossed his head proudly as her voice squealed her delight.  We laughed when she thought his tail looked like a Swiffer dusting wand.  The same vigorous tail wagging was shown with the patient when Sam got close enough to be petted.  The patient smiled and spoke in a soft voice to Sam who watched him intently, hanging on to his every word.  Both the patient and his wife commented on how soulful his eyes were, yet the daughter and granddaughter were MIA in those moments and never so much as looked up.  It mattered not to Sam...he fully believed everything the patient said.  But here was a man whose family didn't take into account he may not be with them for long.  I felt badly for him and his wife.  Maybe they were used to being ignored, and much like we're used to seeing people texting one another at restaurants over a meal.  I certainly didn't have any insight into the family's dynamics, but it seemed as though this is somehow acceptable as a normal human response.  How could we let this happen and is there anything we can do to stem this cavalier approach to life as anything being possible considered as being human. 

When I saw the patient getting tired, we bid our goodbyes and as I walked down the hallway toward the nurses station, I couldn't shake those feelings of loss--the loss of our humanness toward one another in general.  It especially made me realize the importance of solid eye contact, the power of physical touch, be it in a handshake or even a simple touch, and of making the people we visit the only thing in the world that matters for as long as they want to share their time with us.  I was melancholy by the inescapable lack of being truly involved when a loved one needs it the most.  Do humans have a duty to really be there in the the end?

Pet therapy's task is to provide a measure of comfort and peace.  We know what a difference it makes for the sick to receive a visit from these special creatures, how a few moments can reduce blood pressure, boost Serotonin levels and perhaps even speed up the healing process or a patient's ability to feel better even if for just a few minutes.  Certainly if I've learned anything, it's that we all need to treat one another better, especially when we're sick or dying.  To love, to be genuine and engaged, especially at the end when we don't know what's on the other side.  We need to keep our humanity intact and not let a text or email interfere or compete with those connections.

While not naive as to think pet therapy can 'cure' patients, I do know we make them feel better even if only for a moment. And that seems to be the point doesn't it? My take-away from this visit and the state of healthcare in general is to utilize any and all forms of treatment including the powerful comfort a furry companion can bring to the sick. That and being nice to each other. Staying engaged and being present when someone needs that comfort.  We will all need comfort at some point in our lives, but especially toward the end.  In the meantime, wouldn't you want to stay in practice by totally being there when people you care about need it the most? 

Live, love, bark!
Monika & Sam


Published by Monika McDonald