Patient Story
Dogs On Call: Canines Bring Comfort and Joy to Saint Luke’s Hospice House

“Dogs open a place in people’s hearts.” - Alexis Martin

Molly has the kind of bedside manner that melts troubles away. She can do what other caregivers can’t: lick a hand, cuddle in a lap, and, on occasion, jump in bed with her patients.

An Australian shepherd/boxer mix, Molly is one of the pet therapy pooches that—along with her human, Alexis Martin—elevate spirits around Saint Luke’s Hospice House. It’s one of the few facilities that offer pet visits on request 24 hours a day, in addition to biweekly rounds.

At present there are two other leash-ready teams in the Dogs On Call (DOC) Program. These include Lexie, a Labrador retriever, and Lisa; and Roxi, a Yorkshire terrier, and Tracy. An area pet therapy service organization, Pets for Life Inc., trains and certifies the animals, and Saint Luke’s provides special hospice training for the humans.

The pet-people teams are having a beneficial effect on the patients, their families, and the staff since DOC started in March 2015. So far, they’ve had more than 2,000 interactions at Saint Luke’s Hospice House. Each brings smiles and surprises.

Peacekeeping mission

When Alexis bends down to straighten Molly’s ID badge, the dog seems to sense that she has an important job. Her ears prick up like parasols as she trots toward Marc Hurt’s room.

When Marc’s health began to fail, he and his wife, Paula, who were both lawyers, confronted the situation with planning and purpose. They updated wills and estate plans. Paula retired in 2013 to care for him. They read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and discussed what was most important to them at the ends their lives. Then they sent copies to all seven of their children.

“None of us will get out of this alive. So, what can we do to make our exits more graceful?” Paula said.

By age 81, Marc could no longer walk or care for himself. His heart and kidneys were failing. When doctors told him he would need kidney dialysis, he gave Paula a look she understood.

“You don’t want to do this, do you?” she recalled asking.

They turned to Saint Luke’s Home Care & Hospice. For three weeks, therapists and nurses visited the Hurt’s Olathe home. They kept him comfortable and arranged for veterans to visit Marc, a former Navy captain. They all told war stories. Marc laughed with his children and reminisced with his wife.

“For three weeks, we were like a young couple again,” Paula recalled. “We talked, held hands, and enjoyed a wonderful Easter Sunday.”

Two days later, Marc lost consciousness, and the family moved him to Saint Luke’s Hospice House.

The volunteer coordinator told Paula about DOC, and she thought the program might be a good distraction, especially for their visiting grandchildren.

The first member of Marc’s family Alexis and Molly encountered was a sobbing 10-year-old grandchild. The therapy dogs seem to have a sixth sense about who needs comforting the most. The girl began stroking Molly’s auburn fur and was soon giggling as she talked about how much her grandpa loved to play with her dog Gus.

Two of Marc’s children nearby were in a tense discussion wondering why no one was forcing their father to eat, as Paula explained how this would cause him great pain. Watching the joy Molly brought diffused the situation, and soon they were all remembering the attention Marc gave to every dog he passed.

“Dogs open a place in people’s hearts,” said Alexis. “They live in the moment. They don’t care what happened five minutes ago or fret about what will happen five minutes later.”

Alexis brought Molly to Marc’s bedside. Molly rested her muzzle on his chest. Marc passed away a few hours later in the embrace of his wife and daughters.

“Molly gave us a happy focus and helped us say goodbye,” Paula said. “I found comfort in giving the love of my life what he wanted at the end of his own life.”

One lab, STAT

Saint Luke’s Melissa Tinklepaugh, who coordinates DOC, recognizes that much like her human volunteers, some personalities connect better than others. By offering a variety of animals, the program raises the chances of a perfect fit with the right Fido.

Someone who prefers a more animated breed might not connect with sedate Molly, for example.

Curtis C. “CC” Thompson had spent eight days in a windowless intensive care unit surrounded by beeping machines and little room for visiting family before he arrived at Saint Luke’s Hospice House.

“Being here allowed us to enjoy our time with dad,” said Chris Seider, his daughter. “We didn’t have to worry about him being uncomfortable or whether he was getting his medication. Everyone made sure that he got to experience the things he loved.”

This list included a visit from a Labrador retriever.

Molly and Alexis met CC on one of their regular rounds. His family talked about how the retired TWA foreman used to train, show, and hunt with Labs. When the family showed Alexis a picture of CC with his beloved dog, she knew what to do.

“We need a Lab, STAT!” was the message Alexis sent out to Pets for Life Inc. and Pet Partners.

Lisa Baechtold, who owns GentleDog Training with her husband Ken, was just finishing up with training their lab, Lexie, for pet therapy. Time was of the essence.

CC was struggling to breathe and wasn’t responding to people in the room, when Alexis asked if they could bring in Lexie. Suddenly, CC opened his eyes and said clearly, “I want to see the dog.”

Lexie performed like a pro on her first hospice visit. She climbed up between CC’s legs and fixed her amber eyes on him. Then she curled up along his side, so CC could stroke her fur.

Only minutes after they left, a family member reported, “He’s gone.” CC was only at Saint Luke’s Hospice House for a day, but it was rich in simple pleasures. CC got to watch his grandkids play, feel the warmth of a rare 70-degree February day, and stroke the familiar fur of a Lab, a breed he loved, Chris reported.

“Dogs are part of our families,” Alexis said. “God put them on earth to help us.”

Thus, the DOC dogs are also helping people leave this earth with sweet visions of wet noses, wagging tails, and love without conditions.