A therapy dog for cancer patients
I wear 2 hats in the hospital. First, I am a hematology/oncology fellow. In this role, I am responsible for seeing consults, primary patients, and patients in clinic. There are hundreds of other heme/onc fellows around the country, all doing the same things that I do. My second hat is my more unusual one; I am also a registered therapy dog handler.
During my residency, one of our rotations was in a community hospital away from the inner city university where I did most of my training. At this community hospital, I was first introduced to therapy dogs. At the time, I had no experience with therapy dogs and really didn’t know anything about them. These dogs are normal house pets that do extraordinary things. To work as a therapy dog, the animals must be older than 1 year and have exceptional manners and behavior. Their job is simple: to provide joy and smiles. One day, a therapy dog may have an entire nursing unit doting over him; the next may be spent with a very sick patient and her family. Another day, a therapy dog and his handler provided answers to questions about “How is this dog here”…questions from me, a resident near the end of a 30-hour shift.
I have always had a dog in my life. While I was growing up, my family had many different kinds of dogs in our home: Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Newfoundlands, and Chow Chows. Once I was in college, then medical school, I had little time to raise and care for a puppy. That didn’t stop me from dreaming, though. I knew that an English bulldog would soon be my pet. I also knew that I could not raise one alone. I was lucky that my future wife Anjaly fell in love with bulldogs as well. Our engagement consisted of her receiving a beautiful diamond, and her present to me was my first dog of my own, an English bulldog puppy we named Princess Danger Curley.
Princess Danger was never intended to be a therapy dog. She came into our home as a pet, a goofball who immediately stole our hearts. The funny thing is that she not only stole our hearts, but that of anyone who met her. She would roll on her back and kiss faces, and was a sweetheart to everyone she met. She left us no choice in the matter—she was clearly born to be a therapy dog! Waiting until she was a year old seemed like overkill, since she was ready at 8 months. Within a month of her first birthday, we scheduled her session to become certified. After 3 sessions, we had our own certified therapy dog.
We didn’t start small. We applied for her to be one of HUP’s Pups at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). Her certification and vaccine reports were a start, but were not enough for HUP. She underwent a full veterinary examination and passed with flying colors. Her next test was with a veterinary behavioral psychologist, the final test prior to her entering the hospital. We were not surprised that she did not disappoint. She had her ID card picture taken the very next day. She was now a hospital therapy dog with patients to see.
The first day we took her to the hospital, my nerves were on edge. I was entering not as a doctor, not as a patient, but as a handler. My sole responsibility was to make sure that my dog was well behaved and appropriate. Her first assignment was the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) where the head of the therapy dog program walked us through the unit. She gave her love to the nurses’ station and proceeded to see patients. She did this for months, approximately once a week. Her visits lasted between 90 minutes and 2 hours (which is standard for therapy dog visits).
Patients laughed, cried, and told me about their dogs. Danger smiled, rolled around, and loved every moment of the scratching and attention she received. She was a rock star at HUP, but we were both leaving to a new city and job at West Virginia University (WVU).
I started my hematology/oncology fellowship at WVU and immediately loved what I was doing. Oncology was truly my calling, and each day that passed showed me that I had made the right decision. Therapy dogs were conspicuously absent at WVU and Princess Danger was the perfect dog to fill that role. She started as a visitor, and soon turned herself into a regular at the cancer center. She first won over the nurses, followed by the staff and patients. She makes both outpatient and inpatient visits at the clinic and hospital, and some of her best work is with those receiving chemotherapy. Chemotherapy visits are typically outpatient (but can sometimes be inpatient) and can last many hours over months, even weeks. These patients love seeing her, as her visit is a bright spot during their time at the cancer center or in the hospital. She has made countless people laugh, smile, and some cry, but there is one experience that I will never forget.
Princess was making her rounds on the oncology floor as usual, when a nurse asked if she could come see a dying patient. He had a very aggressive form of leukemia that he had fought valiantly, but he had lost the battle. He was on comfort measures, being given only medications to make his last days of life as comfortable as possible. He was much younger than his sunken eyes showed, as I was able to tell by his young wife and high-school-aged daughter. They were obviously having such a tough time with his imminent death. I thought about how hard it must be for him and his wife. They had spent 18 years raising their daughter, and now he was dying as she was about to become an adult, and her mom would be left alone.
Princess entered the room with her normal amount of energy. The patient could barely move, and each breath caused him pain. His daughter and wife were at his bedside, and the true therapy began. My 40-pound love bug hopped in their laps and cuddled up like she hadn’t done before. She knew they needed it, and they truly latched onto her. We stayed for almost 2 hours. They talked about their loved one, but were mainly distracted by Princess Danger. She showered them with love and affection, and moved them both to tears. I knew she truly made a difference, but I didn’t yet know how much she had done to change their lives.
I started taking care of the unfortunate gentlemen as a patient the next day, caring for him and his family. His wife never left his side. His daughter was gone for the day, but I didn’t ask where she was. I can’t really imagine the level of emotion she was going through, losing her father at only 18. The next day I was in the physician workroom when a nurse asked me urgently to come to the unit. Usually this means that someone is gravely ill and needs immediate attention. That day, that was not why I was called. In the hallway, I found a bouncing, happy, 12-week-old English bulldog puppy, freshly picked out by the patient’s daughter the day she was not in the hospital. She was so happy to have her own little bundle of love, and that puppy picked up the staff’s morale that day. I spoke with the patient’s wife; she couldn’t say no to a puppy at that point. She told me that the dog was helping them get through the hardest days of their lives.
The patient died the day after the puppy joined their family. He passed peacefully, surrounded by his family. I was at his bedside and let them know that he had died, and their emotions came pouring out. The family left that day broken, their husband and father taken from them prematurely and unfairly. Cancer is not a fair disease, especially when it relentlessly attacks the young and innocent. We did everything we could to save his life, and in the end we could not succeed. However, Princess Danger had changed their lives forever. I am sure that when they look in the eyes of their dog, they will not only see their lost loved one, but will always remember the day my therapy dog changed their lives.
Brendan Curley, DO, MPH, is a hematology/oncology fellow at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, Morgantown, WV.