On a cold and dreary April morning, Heidi, a shiny-eyed Golden Retriever, is ready for the task she feels made for. Her vigilance for the patients at TRU Community Care’s in-patient Care Center at Longmont United Hospital is unmatched. Heidi has found her joy and ultimate purpose in providing the care needed to support the patients and their loved ones. Every visit she brings a ray of sunshine onto the unit, as she struts off the elevator, ready for the task at hand.
TRU Community Care has provided pet therapy services to patients since 2010, and Heidi has been one of their star volunteers for several years. On this particular Tuesday morning, Heidi is going to be visiting with three patients. She pokes her nose into the first patient’s room without hesitation and then quickly backs up and retreats before Heidi’s human companion, Beth Risdon, can assess the situation. The patient is sleeping and Heidi seems to know that she isn’t needed in that room, or at least not yet.
Heidi looks to Beth, as Beth inquires with the nursing staff as to which patients Heidi should visit with next. As if she understands English, Heidi is up and walking toward room number 5 before the nurses have even finished giving Beth some details on the patient.
Heidi wags her tail as she walks down the hall, eagerly anticipating the visit ahead. Beth knocks and Heidi wags gently at the door. Together they walk in to approach the patient who is sitting facing the cloudy skies out of the window.
Without missing a beat, Heidi walks right up to the patient, who eagerly scratches her head and coos at her. She takes it all in and seems to know that this is what life is all about. After having immersed herself in the love and healing energy of Heidi, the patient looks up to see Beth standing there and begins to tell a story about her two dogs, one of which only knew French commands.
Heidi’s beginnings were on a farm in Nebraska. Her human got sick when Heidi was about two and had to abandon all the animals on the farm. She quickly found herself adopted by Beth’s family in Longmont, Colorado. It was shortly after Beth’s family brought her home that they realized that Heidi possessed the qualities of a great therapy dog. After some time, Heidi started going on walks with a group of retired me who all worked together at IBM, now retired. Bernie, their neighbor, comes to get Heidi and take her on these walks every day except Sunday for a 3.5 mile loop. Heidi is very aware that this walk is a part of her routine.
Her disposition is sunny and bright with a love for routine. Beth realized that Heidi was special and would make a great therapy dog. Two and a half years ago, Beth began the process of getting Heidi and herself certified and trained as a pet therapy team. Heidi was five and a half when she got certified; she is now eight years old. After Beth and Heidi’s final evaluation, Beth reached out to TRU Community Care to see if they would be interested in having the therapy session trainings. And thus, the idea of Heidi being a therapy dog for patients at the end of their life in need of this type of healing support, was born.
The first day on the job, Beth knew that TRU Community Care was going to be a good fit for Heidi. “She walked into a patient’s room and immediately knew what to do.” says Beth. The patient had breast cancer and asked if Heidi could join her on the bed. Beth checked in with the caretaking team and they gave the okay. With that, Heidi jumped up and plopped her head down right on the patient’s chest–where she knew her cancer lived. The patient looked up at Beth and said with a smile, “She knows.”
And that she does.
Now, they both have a weekly session every Tuesday morning at the care center. Beth and Heidi are available to anyone who wants to see them or be with them during this time. Heidi’s work with family members has been incredible. It varies in reaction, but if their loved one loved dogs or they miss their companion, then it can be a very emotional experience. Heidi becomes a vehicle for conversation, re-counting of their history, and ultimately creates an environment that they open up to.
At times, Heidi will come in when a patient has just passed away. Beth will introduce Heidi and she will lie down while everyone begins to pet and love on her. Gradually, everyone will begin to tell stories and open up about their experiences. Heidi is super clued into the emotion about the death and is able to provide a level of empathy that doesn’t come with words.
When Heidi’s therapy vest goes on, she can’t wait to get to the care center. She is all in, going every Tuesday for two years.
For more information about TRU Community Care’s Pet Therapy Program, please visit trucare.org.