By Adrienne Cole
Henry Arthur Cole is no ordinary dog. It’s not just that he dutifully volunteers as part of the pet visitation program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, or that he has lifted the spirits of countless patients, visitors, and staff at the hospital for the last five years. What sets Henry apart is the fact that he too, is a cancer survivor. And he continues to eagerly visit patients and family members every other week, donning his special turquoise-colored uniform.
Seven-year-old Henry, a 75-pound Golden Retriever, began volunteering at Cedars-Sinai’s pet visitation program, Pets Offer Ongoing Care and Healing (POOCH) at the age of two. Henry’s calm and happy disposition made him perfect for the job, but little more than four years into his duties, Henry was to experience what so many of the patients he visited were already going through.
In June 2004, I felt a little swelling in Henry’s neck just prior to his usual veterinary checkup. My vet put Henry on an antibiotic and took a blood test to check for anything suspicious. The blood test came back abnormal, and Henry had to undergo a biopsy, which showed that he was positive for lymphoma. Henry was immediately started on weekly to bi-weekly infusions of chemotherapy.
Henry has been really lucky. He’s experienced very few side effects beyond throwing up once and losing some of his fur. Because he’s done so well, he hasn’t needed to take a break from his volunteer work, even though he’s still getting chemotherapy.
Now in remission, Henry is one of 45 dogs volunteering with the program, along with their people. POOCH was first developed in the Rehabilitation Unit at Cedars-Sinai in 1992. In 1995, Barbara
Cowen, L.C.S.W., introduced the program in the HIV/AIDS unit and it quickly expanded to both the medical and surgical cardiology units. By 2000, child-life specialists at Cedars-Sinai were using members of the POOCH crew in the pediatric unit as well. Cowen agrees that the fur-filled visits are a wonderful way for patients to release some emotions. As Cowen tells me, “It is well documented how unconditional love and affection can lessen a patient’s fears and loneliness, which are feelings often associated with hospitalization. The animals are non-threatening and nonjudgmental– and we’ve seen patients with slower heart beats and lowered blood pressure after a visit.”
Before a prospective canine volunteer can join the POOCH program, the dog is carefully screened by veterinarian John Young, V.M.D, M.S., Director of Comparative Medicine at Cedars-Sinai. “It takes special dogs to be canine volunteers,” Dr. Young says. “They need to have the right personality, be very outgoing to strangers, and be quite stoic in a sometimes hectic environment. It also takes selfless [guardians] because they rarely get as much recognition from the patients and staff as the dogs,” Dr. Young adds.
With me by his side, Henry has become an encouragement to many of the patients with cancer that he visits at the hospital. I recall one young man with lymphoma who was so sick that he couldn’t speak very well. When I told him that Henry also had lymphoma, he was touched, and tears started streaming down his face. We were able to just sit with him and let him express his grief.
On another patient visit, a man with lymphoma shed his self-consciousness after I showed him where Henry had lost some fur around his tail from the chemotherapy. He, in turn, removed his knit cap to show us where his hair had started growing back after treatment.
Unlike many cancer patients who are in remission, Henry will undergo weekly chemotherapy treatments for the rest of his life. The good news is that Henry doesn’t even know that he is sick. Instead, his bout with cancer seems only to have encouraged patients because they can identify with him and appreciate the unique gift he brings to their life.