JJ works three days a week at Samaritan Evergreen Hospice. Her job description is unusual: Roll around on the floor, hand out hugs, and generate smiles. Trained as a registered therapy dog, and with seven years of experience under her collar, she is a valuable member of the staff.
Tracy Calhoun is a hospice nurse and JJ’s mom. Over the years, she has trained five therapy dogs, but JJ is special. “When we walk in to work, if someone is crying, instead of following me, she immediately peels off and put her arms around them.” In fact, JJ is off-leash all day, and decides for herself who needs comforting when.
Samaritan Evergreen Hospice provides comfort care and aggressive pain management for patients who are at the end of life. The people who work there have special training in patient care, but they also care about the families. That is where JJ is invaluable. “Very often there are not words we can say to make it better,” says Calhoun. “When someone is very emotional, spending time with JJ is much more soothing. They don’t have to talk, or assure someone they are saying the right thing. It’s just comforting.”
JJ is also an important part of a ritual of respect the hospice provides for all patients. “We have something called a ‘walk out’,” says Calhoun. “When someone dies, the staff and volunteers line the hallway as the patient leaves on a gurney. JJ taught herself to wait outside the room, then walk beside the gurney as it is wheeled to the front door. All our patients come in the front door and leave by the front door.”
JJ not only comforts patients and families, she gives staff and volunteers a much-needed respite from the demands of their jobs. “She has a big impact as a co-worker,” says Calhoun. “People can take a timeout and play with her, but there is also something about having a dog hanging out that takes the stress level down. Even if she is just being silly, rolling around on her back with a toy. It makes people smile.”
Last year, JJ was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma. Without treatment, she had a prognosis of 1-2 months. In January, Calhoun brought her to the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “I wanted all options for treatment, and the vet I was seeing encouraged me to look into OSU where they have the latest research.”
OSU has given everyone at Samaritan Evergreen Hospice an extra eight months with JJ so far. Although she has been receiving chemotherapy, JJ has remained active and happily working the whole time. “It hasn’t slowed her down at all,” says Calhoun. “There were a couple of times when she got chemo in the morning, then went to work in the afternoon. People were amazed.”
JJ will come to the end of her life soon, and will leave behind big paws to fill. “There is no way I can replicate another JJ,” says Calhoun. “She is the most intuitive dog I have ever had.”