by Karen Luker
Vincent Amari* carefully packs a few belongings into the one suitcase he is able to carry these days. His larger ones served him well when he travelled the Middle East as a journalist. As he looks out his bedroom window, the retired gentleman is keenly aware that this may be the last time he takes in the beauty of the garden he tended with care for so many years.
There has been little time to consider what to do with his cherished belongings and his beloved cat Freckles. Today, he must leave on a terrifying journey to the unknown. The transition to his new life will no doubt be filled with uncertainty, loneliness, and many hours with strangers who will try to convince him that he has left everything behind for the right reasons.
While Vincent’s story may conjure up images of a war-torn country and a refugee’s desperate search for a new beginning, he has lived what he would describe as a charmed life in Ottawa for the past 40 years. The truth is, Vincent was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. His oncologist informed him he would not live long enough to become a grandfather in a few months.
Today, Vincent is being admitted to the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit to receive specialized assistance during his final days. He will receive physical, psychological, social, recreational and spiritual support from a team whose job it is to improve the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing a life-limiting illness. And for the past eighteen years, that team has included at least one volunteer team from Ottawa Therapy Dogs (OTD).
Meet Brenda Dikland and Bloo. Bloo is an 8-year-old standard poodle who is new to the job. He loves people and being in the spotlight. His stature makes him a perfect bedside companion. His wooly grey afro is the ideal ice-breaker. Brenda first joined OTD in the hopes of helping children to read. But Bloo, like many therapy dogs, is completing a year with adults before making the transition to working with children. Taking this unexpected detour, Brenda explains, has been life-changing. “It’s opened a door that I didn’t know was there”, she shares. “It’s a privilege. It’s humbling and centring. In the same way I’ve chosen to live in the forest for the silence, this work is quieting me.”
Yolande Trottier and Zirci, who retired just before Bloo’s arrival, would agree. A cancer survivor herself, Yolande accepted the assignment with some trepidation, afraid the unit would be filled with sadness. What she found was quite the opposite – smiles are plentiful when a happy-go-lucky dog enters the room. And the dog acts as the bridge that allows Yolande, as a virtual stranger, to come into contact and share intimate moments with patients and their families. “My impression changed instantly. It’s so gratifying to see what the dog can bring”, says Yolande, who also describes how much her visits have helped her with her own understanding of death as part of the life cycle. “I did this with the intention of sharing my dog, but it had such an impact on me that I didn’t expect and didn’t look for. I am so thankful that I had this opportunity to share my dog with so many wonderful people and to make a difference in their lives”.
Yolande describes a particularly impactful experience. Her mother-in-law, who had always relegated Zirci to the floor of her home despite his many attempts to jump onto her sofa, was admitted to the unit for end-of-life care. Yolande took the opportunity to visit with Zirci, where she observed a welcome transformation. Her mother-in-law welcomed Zirci onto her bed, treating him with kindness as she pet him until they both drifted off to sleep.
OTD volunteers who have visited the unit over the years have countless stories of their own to tell. Patients reminisce about their own pets. Visitors drop their smart phones to welcome a visiting therapy dog, thus opening a conversation with their loved one. For the volunteer, death is no longer frightening, misunderstood, or taboo. It is an integral part of life, to which dogs and their humans both willingly give and gratefully receive. When Vincent Amari arrives on the palliative care unit, Brenda Dikland and Bloo will be there to welcome him. Hopefully, together, they will make this last life transition a little less terrifying for him.
Karen Luker has been a member of Ottawa Therapy Dogs since 2006. Currently an associate member, she visited the Bruyère Continuing Care Palliative Care Unit weekly for 8 years with her miniature dachshund, Gogo. She is also the author of “Un chien dans ma chambre? La médiation animale en soins palliatifs”, published in Ces animaux qui aiment autrement (2015), a book on the many benefits of the animal-human bond.
*the patient’s name has been altered to maintain privacy.