The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 12, 2014

Amazing Grace

Labrador brings gift of comfort to Hospice House

By Lucinda Martin

— John Brenemen was devastated. It was nearly Christmas and his father, John Sr., remained in the hospital across town while his mother lay dying in a room down the hall. His mother seemed to be resting peacefully, so John decided to slip out for a few minutes to collect his thoughts.

As he sat in the family living area at Bowers Hospice House in Beckley with his head in his hands whispering a silent prayer, he felt as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Grace, Hospice House’s black Labrador retriever therapy dog, appeared at that pivotal moment.  

“She just sensed that I needed somebody to talk to,” John remarked quietly. “Grace came close to the chair where I was sitting and looked up at me and it was as if to say, ‘I’m here for you.’ It was very comforting. A dog like Grace is a wonderful thing to have in a facility like this.”

The staff at Bowers Hospice House and at other independent hospices around the country realize, “There’s no place like home.” From its conception, Hospice of Southern West Virginia and Bowers Hospice House have provided a compassionate, caring atmosphere for the terminally ill and their families. The organization promotes the highest quality of life for the individual with a life-limiting illness while assisting families through the grieving process.

“It’s always about what’s best for the patient,” House Director Rhonda Culicerto stated. “Early on, I began reading and exploring the possibility of using a therapy dog to enrich the lives of the residents at Hospice House.”

Beckley board members from were visiting Hospice Care Plus in Berea, Ky., when they observed Annie, a therapy dog at the facility. They heard stories about how much she meant to the patients and their families, comforting those she served in a way that a human could not. The visiting board members got the staff and other members’ agreement that a therapy dog was a wonderful idea and would be a great addition to  Bowers Hospice House. The seed was planted, but the timing would have to be right … and so would the dog.

The folks at Bowers Hospice House searched nearly two years before they found Grace at Chilbrook Kennels in Martinsburg. Chilbrook, established in 1969, breeds Labradors with qualities that make them excellent companions and service dogs. At Chilbrook, Grace completed rigorous training before becoming a therapy dog.

“She was the perfect fit for us,” Rhonda commented. Quota Club of Beckley held a fundraiser to make the dream of having Grace a reality.

When she arrived, it was Aaron Housh, the development director at Bowers, who helped make her transition a smooth one. Since he had worked with a therapy dog previously, having come from Hospice Care Plus in Kentucky to Hospice of Southern West Virginia, he was able to train the staff and make everyone feel at ease with their new four-legged friend, just as he had felt with Annie.

“Aaron did a fantastic job. We can take Grace anywhere in the facility,” Rhonda said. “She’ll walk quietly by our side even with distractions present. She’ll stay if we ask and lay her head gently on the patient’s bed for them to pet her if they want.”

Grace’s service vest reads, “I’M FRIENDLY. PLEASE PET ME.” She remains quiet, calm and gentle, and she won’t enter a room unless invited. As expected, her love is unconditional.

Sometimes when a patient is declining in condition, he might mistake Grace for a pet he owned when he was a boy. “Come here, Lady, and let me pet you once more.” His eyes will light up and he’ll smile as he strokes her head. “Remember that day we went fishin’ at Little Beaver?”

Gradually, his hand will slow as he drops off into a peaceful slumber. Grace and Rhonda will leave quietly when they’re sure their charge is resting.

“I feel so fortunate to be with them during this part of life’s journey,” Rhonda said with tear-filled eyes. “It’s a privilege.”

For Grace, Pet Visitation at Hospice House is a special time to socialize with other pet pals. “We’ve had people bring in cats, dogs, birds (in cages), fish ... and one of our patients had a family member with a service dog,” Rhonda explained.

Grace was excited to meet this yellow Lab; usually so calm and quiet, she was almost “giddy” to have a peer, as Rhonda described.

“They were definitely kindred spirits.”

Grace has made a difference in lives by being at Bowers Hospice House.

“Now that we’ve seen the benefits to the patients, their families and to the staff, we hope to always have a therapy dog on board. It’s wonderful to take her back in my office and close the door and share the events of the day,” Rhonda said.

“Luckily, she’s not like the dog in the Bush’s baked beans commercial; I can tell her anything, and she’s not required to sign a HIPAA Confidentiality Agreement,” she said lightheartedly.