Category Archives: Cancer

Heavy Thoughts

Last week we had some very intense visits at West Pines as well as our regular rotation at hospital and hospice. It’s taken a few days to try to sort through the feelings those visits left and I’m not sure they can be adequately conveyed even after much reflection.

Whenever we visit hospice I already know each patient is on the last journey of their lives. Yes, it’s sad when anyone passes even those that are elderly and have led a long and hopefully fruitful life. There have been a few young patients that touch my heart. How could this happen? A young person, who life hadn’t filled all its promise, cut short. And yet, intellectually I know it happens; it’s all part of life. I know intellectually it’s not fair. It’s not comforting to see such inequity, but know the important part is not how long of a life, but how amazing it was, right?

Indeed, I was not at all prepared for Thursday’s visits. When I checked with the nurses down the first corridor, they said to be sure to visit with the lady in 220 as she was sitting in her recliner. As soon as I knocked on the partially opened door, a woman’s voice trilled for us to come in. Once inside, an extremely over-sized, round-faced woman greeted us with “ooh, a doggie!” as my “Good morning” greeting barely left my lips. This woman with her pale face and rosy checks reached out to run her fingers through Sam’s hair. It took us a couple of moments to arrange to get into the corner, moving her bed tray and IV pole out of the way.

Whenever I visit hospice, I contemplate about the lives of the patients we see. What were they like, did they grow up on a farm or were they native to the city? Most of the older patients tend to have grown up in rural settings and when conscious, regale me with stories of hard work and strong morals, most often with stories sprinkled with tales of tails…dogs, cats, farm animals…I enjoy them all. With the woman we were visiting, it was hard to tell what kind of life she’d led…it seemed she was well in the advanced stages of confusion and dementia in addition to her medical condition. Still we are always delighted when a patient is awake as most are not and I know Sam’s visits brighten their hearts. With patients suffering from dementia, I let Sam take over and allow them ramble on to him and smile a lot, not saying much. What else can you do when comprehension is fleeting? After a few minutes we could tell she was tiring, and thus bid our farewell and moved on to the next corridor.

To get an understanding of what the layout of hospice looks like, think of a building built like a wagon wheel with the spokes being the corridors. The center area houses the main nurses stations and each ‘spoke’ has a small private room with comfortable seating, a mini-nurse’s station near the pharmaceutical cabinet, a restroom and shower area, a small sitting area at the end of each hallway with chairs and end tables that families can use to regroup, make phone calls, etc. with access to a private outside garden. Whenever we move to a new hallway, I access what we might encounter. Often there are groups of visitors mingling about and a nurse or two filling out charts, preparing medications, etc. This particular hallway had a small little boy at the end of the hallway, crawling around on the chairs. He was alone so I figured his family was in one of the rooms nearby. Surprisingly, there were 4 nurses gathered at the mini-station, an unusually large group, chatting and entering data. When I asked them for details about the floor, two of them said they were fairly full, but we should definitely visit with Meike who loved nature and had just asked to be moved outside to the garden. “Of course,” I said. “We’re happy to visit with her.” Then one of them said, “I’ll bet Adler would love to meet Sam!” ‘Adler’ turned out to be the young boy at the end of the hall. She called him over. The shy little boy let his small fingers twirl through Sam’s ears. The nurse asked Adler if he liked Sam and he shuffled from one foot to the other and demurred, “Sure.” His mind seemed elsewhere, but then again I may have been projecting. He talked for a few moments and I learned he was 9 years old. ‘Meike’ was his mom. Gulp. I wasn’t prepared for that detail. After he walked back to the end of the corridor, we made our way out to the garden to visit with his mom. It was a lovely day, despite being cloudy with a hint of welcome rain. After many days of warm temps, the cooler day with its slight breeze felt good. Meike’s back faced us as we quietly moved toward her.

The enclosed garden area was quiet and beautifully landscaped with flowers around a large  gazebo with numerous chairs. It’s a peaceful area and a lovely spot for patients or their visitors to commune with nature for a few moments, away from beeping machines and a harsh medical setting. I’m sure it has comforted many during those final visits with loved ones. As I moved toward Meike, I noticed her eyes were closed as if she were contemplating her remaining time and soaking up the nature around her. I watched her for a few moments and my thoughts immediately moved from her to her young son. It was hard to tell her age as her head was buried deep within the covers but I couldn’t let go of the fact this was all wrong, young mother’s weren’t supposed to leave their small children to a world that could easily swallow them whole. Who would protect young Adler? Who would teach him how to ride a bike, throw a ball, how to solve math problems, and more importantly how to kindly treat people? You know, all those life lessons necessary to living in a meaningful way. My imagination got carried away and my troubled energy clearly rubbed off onto Sam. He leaned against my leg waiting for a petting and startling me into returning to the present moment. We stood there for a few more seconds watching Meike breathe and then we quietly left the garden making our way out of the building. I couldn’t even begin to work the last corridor but as we were leaving, a couple of women on their way to the kitchen stopped to ogle over Sam. They sincerely thanked us for coming. I could only half-heartedly smile and let them chat Sam up marveling at his calmness. While not on the verge of tears, my heart was heavy and sad and truthfully, I had no words in me. I kept asking myself why this little boy and his mother had made such an impact on my heart and mind. Clearly we’ve encountered others close to death’s door but none had affected us as much as these two. Energy was the only explanation I could figure. But it ended up being the cosmos’ way of saying, “But wait…there’s more…”

As we left the parking lot for home, I couldn’t surrender my shaken core. When I got home, in a moment of hopeful escape, I went to Facebook. Surely there’d be something to distract my heavy heart. And right there, first post on my wall, was the photo of a dear acquaintance dressed in a hospital gown with an IV pole next to him, ever so thin and pale, nearly bald, and standing next to his partner reciting wedding vows. I hadn’t seen Howard in a few months but knew his treatment for melanoma was taking its toll, yet had no idea of the degree of seriousness. Ugh, my heart heaved…another gentle soul, leaving too soon. Despite months and months of surgeries, chemo, experimental treatment, Howard’s condition had not changed and as he faced the end of the road, he had decided to marry his love and then checked into hospice for the final days. The end was near and I didn’t need his partner’s words to tell me that. I could see it in the expression on Howard’s face. As long as I’ve known him, his wicked, rapier wit and acerbic humor camouflaged the sadness I now saw on his face. He was tired, tired of fighting an enemy who was stealing his very essence and yet I knew it would be this man who would bring together hundreds of friends and acquaintances mourning the loss of a bright, funny man we would all miss very soon. And as I processed this additional cross to bear, my thoughts turned back to little Adler, all alone at the end of a hospice corridor, his mom alone in a quiet garden. I could only hope they had as extensive and supportive network as Howard did. And then I wept with tears flowing down my checks, burning my eyes and being dried by Sam’s kisses.

Maybe it was just a confluence of sadness after intense visits with pet therapy and the news about Howard simply made it all too raw for me. But what this jumble of emotions tells me, that just like my Sam experiences when he works to negate sadness and strife, our hearts become weighted with energy of a surrounding world where bad things happen to good people, and where it’s important to make sure to spend time trying to make a difference in the lives of those whose paths cross ours. I pray we do justice…for the lady in Room 220 and the Adler’s of the world by sharing a few moments with a goofball sweet dog whose tail can’t seem to stop wagging when he ministers to them.

We’ll be taking this week off to spend as much time as possible hugging my son extra tightly as he visits for a few days and to share the deep connection our entire family has when we all get together for these reunions. There probably won’t be posts the rest of this week, but I will do my best to try to keep up with what’s going on with you. What this past week has shown me if anything, is the best way to feel alive and minimize pain is to focus on others and share the beauty of their lives, their stories. For us around the Ranch, this will involve sharing smiles and telling funny stories of past get-togethers. Our family will talk, laugh, and share more than a few beers with memories that have provided us meaning and purpose. I hope little Adler has someone equally as special to hold him and be a true compass as soon as his mom leaves this mortal world.

Post script.  Howard passed away Saturday evening. He was 50 years old. The FB page announcing his passing displayed this image which is a good reflection of his outlook. He was all about the best parts of life. Comedy, Improv, Music (oh sooo much music), Film, Friends, Blogs, Animals and endless amounts of kindness, grace and love. He will be sorely missed by so many. In memory of Howard and so many others like him, make someone laugh today. #f*ckcancer

Live, love, bark! ❤︎

Heroes of Hope

Over the weekend I had mom take me to Lutheran’s 2017 Heroes of Hope Run/Walk event to help celebrate National Cancer Survivors Day. Sam here. This was our 3rd time pawticipating in this event (you can read about our previous races here and here). And just like always, we signed up for the 1 mile Fun Walk, but since it was such a gorgeous day and I’m in such good shape, we decided to do the 5K course instead. People of all ages trotted along side my lean physique and we all were cheered by race spectators along the tree-lined hospital campus and surrounding neighborhood. I really wanted to stop and have some of them pet me but mom said we shouldn’t dally. Sheesh, she’s such a buzz kill. I mean, come on woman…don’t you know I’m a real lady-killer? You know I always attract a group of fans at these events and this year was no exception. I even got to meet Miss Colorado, Shannon Patilla! Don’t we make a great-looking couple? Miss Shannon was really sweet and gave me the best ear rubs. S.W.O.O.N. She’s getting ready to graduate with a master’s degree in healthcare administration soon and is ready to take on the world after almost a year of attending events like this one. We wished her loads of success and happiness and thanked her for supporting cancer survivors.

Who knew we’d both look so pawsome in purple?

Let’s go racers!

This was the 10th anniversary of the event which celebrates courage, resilience and strength, just some of the characteristics that describe the over 14 million cancer survivors across America. Not only do these words describe those who have won their fight against cancer, but also those who fought courageously and with dignity. It was incredible to see 20, 25, and even 30 year survivors being recognized. A 10K, 5K, 1 mile Fun Walk and the kids walk make for a fun experience and although we didn’t hear what the final total figure raised was, we expect the proceeds will provide plenty of support at the Cancer Centers of Colorado at Lutheran Medical Center and will help inspire those who are recently diagnosed, support the families who have lost their loved ones to cancer and be a Hero of Hope in our local community.

It was such an honor to be a part of the pet therapy team pawticipating with the nearly 500 other race contestants and a great way to celebrate a Sunday morning for such a very worthy cause.
Live, love, bark! ❤︎

Leaves of Hope ~ 2015

On Sunday we participated in this year’s Leaves of Hope Walk/Run Cancer Survivors Celebration on the hospital campus. A number of other pet therapy dogs participated along with us. What was supposed to be a 1 mile family walk ending up being pretty much being a 5K for Sam and me so he was pretty tuckered out after the race and with the visiting with the other volunteers and runners. This is the largest event of its kind in nearby Jefferson County where everyone celebrate cancer survivors, support their families and reach out to communities affected by cancer as part of the National Cancer Survivors Day, a world-wide annual event held in hundreds of communities around the world. Although it’ll be a few days before we know how successful the event was monetarily, there are the fun aspects of the event worth sharing. We participated last year as well and clearly proved once again, I have no skill for juggling leash, poop bag, camera, swag tote, cell phone, car keys, pullover jacket and backpack very easily with only a couple shallow pockets to try and organize all that stuff (how do people manage handling that amount of stuff belongings and do it so effortlessly). And can anyone explain why women’s pants have such dinky pockets? Naturally, Sam took every opportunity to try to pull my shoulder out of its socket to filch treats and breakfast items set up for runners. I swear his name should be “Hoover” sometimes. But as usual, he made up for it by being sweet as can be.

image Meet Joyce, one of the many volunteers who helped put this great event together. Joyce is also a trainer with the Denver’s Children’s Hospital pet therapy program (the model for our own program in fact) and a dedicated enthusiast of pet therapy. Can you tell that Sam fell in love with her?

While the race for pet therapy entrants was designed to be a 1 mile walk with kids and family, we ended up doing pretty much the full 5K race since I apparently missed the mile marker. It was such a gorgeous day with pleasant temperatures and blue skies, something we’ve seen on such a limited basis here in the 303 lately so I guess I was just enjoying myself a little too much. Sam seemed to have his motoring wheels on too. He almost went the entire way without having to stop and check his pee-mail or Twitter feeds (talk about a red-letter day–that never happens!!). He did however have the need to drop a deuce along the race route. Nothing like trying to look cool in a race and having to carry a full poop bag for half a mile till you find a trash can. #keepingitreal. 😉

After the race, we hung out catching up with other therapy members and their dogs. Roxann brought all 3 of her wonderful retired Greyhounds, Lily, Little One, and Munchkin. They were a big hit with everyone-they are so patient and gentle.

image These absolute sweethearts managed to captivate everyone’s attention who walked past our booth.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen at this event is a miniaturized version of a fire truck which the Fire Dept. uses as a training tool to introduce kids to fire trucks. Little kids were able to wear replica Fire Dept. clothes and helmets and can pose with the truck. Everything on it works (including the siren alarm) and all the gauges are just like on a real full-sized fire truck. Sam met one of the fire marshals who graciously allowed us to get in the cab. Seems this vehicle (built on a golf cart) was originally the brainchild of a local inventor whose son was handicapped but wanted to be a fire truck for Halloween some years back. His dad made it to accommodate his son’s wheelchair and then gave it to the Fire Dept. shortly thereafter. This fella continues to maintain, update, and freshen it up for the Fire Dept. every year. I was so touched by this story and his generosity, it just made my heart swell knowing someone was so creative and thoughtful. Sam was freaked out about getting into the cab and his fanny bumped the siren button and set it off which made him even more wigged out, but when I called his name he poked his snout out the window. If there was one of those convo bubbles above his head, I’m sure it would say, “help me.”

image

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Sam met with Deputy Fire Marshall Sprenkle and let him know what a cool thing it is they are doing but mostly to apologize for setting off the alarm which sounded just like the real deal. 🙂

When we left the course some 3 hours later, Sam was pretty well spent (guess all that walking and warm sunshine got to him). I on the other hand needed to get some ground covers planted in the garden. Here he is napping supervising. He is a relentless taskmaster.

All tuckered out pup.

All tuckered out pup.

So how was your weekend? Did you set off any alarms? Got any tips to keeping gear organized and accessible? 🙂

Live, love, bark! ❤

It was one of THOSE days

Walk with me Grasshopper [Master Po]

Walk with me Grasshopper
[Master Po]

Ever have one of those days?  Sure, we all have them but how you perceive them makes all the difference in the world. It’s usually some stupid little thing that sends our minds into chaos.   Remember the 1970’s series Kung Fu where David Carradine was able to master his mind and calm everything down?  Well, I should have remembered some of those episodes, it might have helped us both out.

This past weekend was our regular rotation at hospital and hospice. Saturday we were scheduled for oncology. It’s always an intense session for both of us. Patients are so sick, their families are worried and a hardworking staff usually has their hands full. Everyone seems a little bit on edge. I get that and know that with Sam’s usual calming presence we usually manage the shift well.

It wasn’t that we were running behind, in fact, we were fairly early. The problem was my fault; I didn’t cope well and it may well have affected Sam.  Maybe it was barometric pressure.  It was one of those rain-threatening days with hail in the forecast. We’ve had some real doosies of hail storms recently so I thought; “heck we’re early, let’s park at the farthest point away in the parking lot under a very large cottonwood tree that would easily protect my little set of wheels.” My car isn’t super special, but it’s cute, dependable and in very good shape. It’s kind of important to me to want to keep it a nice, cute, dependable vehicle. So far so good, right?

That’s when everything went to crap. Unbeknownst to what was just ahead, we sauntered into the volunteer area to sign in. As soon as I got us all signed in, I realized Sam was missing his ID tag. Phooey. Having lost my own badge several weeks ago (still think it fell off somewhere in the parking lot but it was never turned in to Lost & Found), I wasn’t feeling like I wanted to go through the replacement process and expense again. Hey, no sweat, we’ve got plenty of time I thought, we’ll just go back out to the parking lot and see if it fell off in the lot since I had attached it to his collar when we got out of the car. About this same time, I also realized my car keys are missing. Ugh!

Part of my uniform consists of a handy apron with pockets across the front and a smock/lab coat also with pockets.  Since volunteers don’t have lockers, all these pockets are especially useful to stash the items we need during our visits—Sam’s business cards that are given to patients, a small hand sanitizer, small note pad with enough room for a few dog treats–just stuff like that. The coat has two decent sized pockets where I can stash my wallet and (on good days) my keys.  So I empty all the apron pockets and check my pant pockets as well. Dang it, no keys. Then I empty the pockets of the smock. Again, no keys. Rats! So I do the only thing I can think of, go trundling back out and check the car and guess what…it starts to rain (I am not making this up).

Sam really despises getting wet and I wasn’t all that keen on looking like Little Orphan Annie with curls up to here. We dash to that far end of the lot (remember that good idea I had earlier?) and I look in the passenger side to see if the keys are in the ignition. No dice. Ah, crap! The good news is I spot the missing ID tag and secure it on to Sam’s collar. We head back toward the sign-in area because I’m convinced that I probably just set the keys down next to the sign-in computer.  No biggie.  Ha!

Once back in, I fluff Sam and myself up a bit so we don’t look like drowned rats. So far, not so bad. But alas, no keys either. Oh man, really?!…I decide to go back out and see if maybe the keys fell next to the seat or maybe I set them down in the back seat when Sam got out and I hooked up his leash. Well, at least it’s not raining now but I’m starting to get stressed. Muttering and kvetching, I notice Sam is panting hard and not just from walking back and forth like crazy. He’s picking up on my energy.  Oh no!

So back out in the parking lot, I walk all around the car and what do I see? The blankety-blank keys sitting ‘purdy as a picture’…in the door lock! Argh, are you freaking kidding me??!! Now we are running behind and we rush back inside. Sam is definitely stressed. He freaks out in the elevator and seems completely at odds with his normal calm “I’m ready to go to work” persona. I’m upset and feel out of step myself. This is not good.

Before we begin a shift, we always swing by the gift shop and say hi to the volunteer high school students that generally man the shop on weekends. Sam loves these kids and they always enjoy a visit with him before we head up to our assigned floor. It’s a good way to begin a shift and it brightens their day.  He’s totally disinterested and out of balance so we leave and head on up hoping it’ll get better (sorry kids, we’ll be more friendly the next time…promise!). The oncology floor can be intense and kind of crazy. Saturday the stars were totally aligned but not in a good way.

The first room we stopped by was on full tilt alarm. The patient was stressed and tired and no doubt probably sick of that annoying beep, beep, beeping noise so we didn’t stay long. I offered to bring someone in to turn the alarm off. Sam was restless and disinterested in visiting, that confounded alarm wouldn’t shut up and it seemed like it took forever for the nurse to come silence it. Everything seemed frenzied (or at least in my mind it was–it’s all in perception, right Grasshopper?). We left and moved on to patient number two. Another squawking alarm (what are the odds?). Ugh. The patient’s visitor asked if I could get someone to turn it off, they said it had been trilling away for the past 10 minutes. Oh dear.  I’ve never seen or heard so many alarms going off on a floor.  Sam actually hesitated and then balked at going into the next room. And so it was the entire shift. In the rooms he would go in, he’d be restless, panting, not fully engaged. By then I was no longer stressing about my misplacing the stupid keys, but about him but I wasn’t in the best place to guide him back to balance (breathe, Grasshopper).

Recent research has shown examples of dogs and their amazing ability to ‘smell’ cancer. The results suggest they are quite good at it too. I couldn’t help wondering if some of those scents were part of Sam’s distress or was I totally to blame. Granted, I’m sure he picked up on my negative energy but I couldn’t help but wonder if his super sensitive nose was picking up on those patients’ condition, all the equipment alarms and the stressed out staff. It was a perfect storm of everything converging. Maybe it was just an off kilter alignment of the stars.  Whatever it was, it all started out with something stupid and minor and turned into ‘one of those days.”

Thankfully Sunday was better; we went to hospice and Sam was more balanced. We visited with some really nice people who told funny stories of their family’s experiences with dogs (I learned a lot about Dalmations–oh my!).  There was a greater level of calm though it was still a teeny smidge off from our usual shifts at hospice. I guess perception is everything, and when it’s bad as it had been the previous day, it surely impacted us and maybe even carried over to Sunday. Next time I’ll be better prepared so it’s a good visit for patients as well as a good experience for Sam. They all deserve that.  ❤

Did you do anything fun on the first weekend of summer? Do dish on how you handle ‘one of those days.’

Medicine and Inspiration

Good boy!

Good boy!

Seems to me that medicine can be delivered in a couple a ways. Of course, there’s the traditional way through IV’s and meds administered by staff and then there’s the 4-legged love-meds that pet therapy animals deliver through a nudge on a patient’s hand or by a wagging tail. I’m kind of partial to the 4-legged version. I’ve seen it work wonders.   Like the patient we recently visited whose blood pressure was taken and it was sky high.  The patient smiled weakly and called Sam over to him.  Now Sam handles being around medical equipment with very little difficulty but I’m always kind of nervous that he might step on a tube or pull out a line and this guy was pretty wired up. Sam edged his way over to him and sat in front of the guy’s legs. After the first reading, the nurse said “hmm, let’s try it on the other arm and see what we get.” It took her a minute or so to maneuver around to his other side.  Meanwhile the patient is massaging Sam’s ears and Sam is of course soaking up the attention and he lays his head against the man’s thigh (this is the only “trick” this goofy dog will do).

By the time the nurse got around to the other side and took another reading, the pressure was nearly normal!  She was a little surprised at the big difference but the patient just smiled and said (as he pointed to Sam), this is the reason it’s better.  Dogs are miracle workers.  We talked about the incredible ability of dogs as they help patients keep their vitals more normal and the peace these amazing creatures give to patients. The couple recalled stories about their own dogs that had meant so much to them throughout their lives and how grateful they were to have had a dose of that magic 4-legged medicine that day.

I’ve seen that 4-legged love inspire people in other situations, too. Like my friend Sara (who maintains quite the work out regimen) recently told me, she finds Frances, the ‘gym mascot’ there to give her just enough inspiration to put in those last tough reps. She’s told me there are times she’d like to quit but a gentle flick of her tongue or those adoring sweet brown eyes and a wagging tail always gets her to dig down deep and finish her set.  It makes her feel accomplished and inspired.  How can you beat that?

Whenever we end a shift, I know we have made a difference in the health of patients and their families, just like with this guy and his wife.   Too often we take animals for granted, but the bond between patients and dogs is irrefutable and continues to amaze me especially when I see results like that.

So what if you’re a rotten hound some days (like when you snitch a piece of cheese off the table or roust through the garbage)…you made a patient and his wife manage to feel a little bit better and that’s what this is all about. ❤️

To all the Frances’ and Sam’s…way to go!

National Cancer Survivors Day

National Cancer Survivors Day is an annual event celebrated world wide in hundreds of communities to celebrate cancer survivors, inspire those recently diagnosed, support families and reach out to communities affected by cancer.  With more than 14 million survivors in America, we all probably know someone who has beaten cancer. Today Sam and I celebrated their survival as the hospital held its 7th Annual “Leaves of Hope” event.  And although I’m still a bit jet-lagged from the long flight home, Sam and I crossed the finish line before all the other pet therapy dogs. Yay, Sam. 🐾

Whenever we represent the pet therapy program at the hospital, I’m very proud of my fur-kid.  He always does his best even if he tried like hell to snatch a bagel off the breakfast-for-survivors table.  Clearly there’s work to be done about his table manners.  I just can’t help wondering where in that stupid pea-brain did he think snitching a bagel would be acceptable??  Goofy dog.  But he was mellow and his usual friendly self around all the dogs, the runners, and the chaos associated with an event that had 750 runners (a new record this year-woot!), race personnel, cancer survivors and other supporters/volunteers at this event.  As we walked through the health and safety expo, we were greeted with smiles and appreciation for being part of the pet therapy team by countless survivors.  When I see these former patients, I can’t help but marvel at their courage, their resilience, their optimism.  They’re the ones that inspire Sam and I every single time we have the privilege to do a hospital shift.  I am profoundly in awe of their human spirit and ever so thankful for my own life blessings.   They give me so much to contemplate and I am driven to help them out any way possible.  What Sam and I do seems so minor and yet their faces told me otherwise.  For this, I am extremely humbled.

To those who have to deal with this terrible disease, know we are here for you.  At events like this, as well as walking through the oncology floor trying our damnedest to lighten your load just a bit with a smile, a kind word and a tail wag.  Through research and events like this one we will beat this rotten bastard of a disease and together we’ll continue to celebrate your life.

Leaves of Hope