Don’t be surprised if you spot a wagging tail and hear the patter of paws trotting along hallways of Houston Hospice. There are furry volunteers afoot in a place that emphasizes life – even the last precious remnants of life. In the midst of the largest medical center in the world, this 1920s estate welcomes patients, families and volunteers from Fort Bend, Harris, Waller, Wharton, Montgomery, Matagorda, Austin, Colorado, Brazoria and Jackson counties.
A “Tail” of Love
10 years ago the pet therapy program began with volunteer Ann James and her docile Golden Retriever, Chrissy. When Chrissy laid her head in an elderly neighbor’s lap, Ann realized her dog was a natural therapy pet. She found a certification program through Faithful Paws, a ministry of Bellaire United Methodist Church, and recruited friend and fellow Golden Retriever owner Lynn Hoster. After training and certification, Chrissy and Lynn’s dog Dixie inspired more dogs to join in.
I shadowed Chris Chisholm and Jazz, her rescued Cavalier King Charles Spaniel this past June. Chris said, ““I’m so glad you’re writing this story!” The volunteer training at Houston Hospice alleviated her own fear of death, and she has a new understanding of the importance of comfort.
Judy Anderson and Casey, her Bichon Frise, were also in attendance. Judy said, “Sometimes patients are unresponsive, but their families are helped. The visits bring them happiness at a very stressful time.” As we walked the halls, every soul flashed broad, unabashed smiles at the dogs — the kind that spring from real joy.
On their very first visit, Chris and Judy entered the room of a five-year-old who had been unresponsive all day. Chris asked the mother if she could place Jazz on the little girl’s bed. Jazz began licking the girl’s hand… and the hand moved. Then Jazz began licking the little girl’s face. The child opened her eyes and her mother asked, “Do you like the dog honey? Isn’t he pretty?” The little girl responded!
When it was time to leave, the mother followed Jazz into the hall and walked sobbing into Chris’s open arms. The child died that night. Because Jazz instinctively knew what to do, the mother had a few more precious moments with her little girl.
Next I trailed along with Loretta Uzick and her well dressed Yorkshire Terriers, Cricket and Skyler. Cricket has volunteered one year and Skyler is a puppy in training. Loretta loves meeting new people and has the gift of gab. But more important is the gift of listening, which she learned through volunteer training classes. “The dogs get me in the door, and sometimes families and patients will open up and talk,” she explains.
As I walked through the inpatient unit, family and friends of patients stopped Loretta constantly. A woman from San Francisco who was visiting her brother showed us her iPhone filled with photos of with Jazz snuggled next to her brother’s legs.
Volunteers at the Heart of Hospice
My final ‘walk along’ was with Cassie Chiaro and her Yorkie Vala, and Brenda Chan and Andie, her Gold Retriever mix. Cassie and Brenda met during Houston Hospice volunteer training, hit it off, and became partners. Together with their dogs, they visit almost every week.
As we neared the exit, we paused at a bench where Mindy Fleisches and her teenage son were resting after hours of being at their loved one’s bedside. When they looked up wearily, Cassie and Brenda invited them to pet the dogs. Michael lifted Vala to his face and asked if he could keep her. Mindy stroked Andie’s soft golden fur and said, “Thank you. I feel better.” This perfect moment illustrates the purpose of Houston Hospice therapy dogs and their owners.
About the author: Karla Goolsby is a Communications Specialist at Houston Hospice. Learn more at houstonhospice.org