Imagine for a moment that you have been given six months or less to live. (We’re not trying to depress you. Just roll with it for a minute). As your circle of life shrinks smaller and smaller, until it revolves merely within the inside of your home, then your room, then your bed, you encounter fewer and fewer visitors, some of whom you no longer even recognize…
Then one afternoon, your hand, draped over the side of your hospital bed railing, detects something familiar, something wet, something…sniffing.
It’s Bill, oh Billy, oh sweet Billy Boy, and for a moment, the world returns to technicolor, and life comes rushing back. Psychologists say memory is strongly linked to music and to smell, but they don’t have anything on a dog, let me tell you. A dog is music and smell, all mixed together, with fur, a wet nose, and a wagging tail thrown in for good measure.
This photograph is the very photograph handed out to every Hospice patient under Dr. Bill’s care. Since many of the Hospice patients experience some degree of dementia, they each keep a picture of Bill – and his keeper Nena – to remember the good times, as well as to help them recognize Bill when he comes to visit next time.
They are the keepers of these final, fading, precious memories – like summer wildflowers pressed in a book.
The spark of life in tired eyes, the sudden smile spreading across what was seconds ago a sad face. That’s what dogs do.
Sometimes he would climb onto a couch with a patient or sleep at the foot of a bed. “He’s not a small dog, so we had to be careful,” Nena says. “Bill is a 60-pound dog, and his patient might only weigh 90.” Most times, he would lay quietly at their feet and be petted. And yes, Nena admits, Bill had his favorites. “He could tell the real dog lovers.”
The pandemic has managed to bring all that joy-mongering to a screeching halt. All the Hospice, hospital, and insurance guidelines in the age of COVID-19 have pushed Dr. Bill’s brand of medicine right out the door. Wisely so, probably. Dog-gone-it.
It’s just not safe. Even though some studies have shown that the virus doesn’t survive well in animals’ coats and that animals are not likely to spread the disease even when they have it, too little is yet known about transmission. With patients who already have such a tenuous grasp on life, you just can’t take chances letting a dog go from patient to patient, sniffing and (possibly) licking them all.
For Nena, who has been working with Bill and his Hospice patients in rural south-central Virginia for two years, the risk is personal too. Her husband, Kirk (who was a Marine and a Captain at one point, so we can’t resist calling him Captain Kirk), has COPD and asthma. Nena says they are “social-distancing pretty hard” in their cozy home nestled off Virginia’s bucolic Blue Ridge Parkway.
They really don’t want Captain Kirk to catch this, so the other day when electricians showed up, they put Bill away so he wouldn’t pick up any germs from the visiting men. When one of the workers unexpectedly opened the wrong door, Bill came bounding out. Nena came tearing around the corner to catch him and found the electricians with their hands in the air. “We didn’t pet him, we swear,” they called out, “but he sure petted us.”
Some people might be enjoying working from home in their pajamas, but working from home, clearly, isn’t working for Bill.
Every Monday, he was accustomed to the routine: he would go outside for his bath, sit patiently while she blow-dried his soft hair, let her clean his teeth, all in preparation for his big day of people-loving. Now, all that love is nestled away, just waiting.
The Hospice patients that fall under the care of Augusta Health Hospice of the Shenandoah are likewise nestled away in their own homes, nursing homes, or Hospice house. Essential workers still come and go, but contact is minimized to limit the spread of infection – even more so than it always has been for Hospice patients.
Nobody’s trying to say Bill isn’t essential, but everybody knows it’s hard to minimize contact with a dog. The whole idea is an oxymoron.
So Nena is working on a video of Bill to email from her phone to the phones of caregivers who are still working with the Hospice patients. It’s just a way to check-in. Hey, guys, Bill misses you. Stay safe. Know that we’re thinking of you, and we’ll be back when all this is over.
Yes. When all this is over. That bright day beckoning us from somewhere in the future to hang on. Just hang on a little bit longer. It’s harder for Hospice patients to do that than it is for the rest of us.
In a sense, the pandemic has given all of us a taste of what their world is like: when the walls start to close in when any day could be your last when the brightest spot in your day is a big old friendly dog who sniffs your hand (and doesn’t care what you smell like).
Wherever you are, in whatever corner of the world, if you are reading this, get up and go hug your dog – just because you can.
Post-script: Nena said our blog brought tears when she read it the first time. They have lost several of their patients this year, so Nena and Bill are grieving. Nena reminded us that there is a real shortage of Therapy Dogs out there. “If there’s one thing I hope Bill’s story could accomplish,” she says, “it’s to encourage people to consider training their dog to be a Therapy Dog.” Bill is an energetic 8-year-old Brittany Spaniel – not exactly a lap dog – who was more interested in squirrels and chipmunks than his training (which was conducted outdoors, to their dismay). He takes direction, has a gentle spirit, and loves people. “Your dog could make a huge difference in somebody’s life,” Nena says.