I picked Rufus up and she led us down a hallway lined with the small apartments where the residents slept and kept their personal belongings. I had not realize how many people lived there who I never saw in the Rec Room. As we approached the door, I began to get a little nervous. We were about to enter a very delicate situation and there would be many watchful eyes. I planned to give a quick greeting to the family and then place Rufus on the foot of the bed. I anticipated he would simply lay there, resting his head on the foot or leg of this very sick woman.
Walking into the room, the distress was palpable. There were two adult children and three adult grandchildren seated around the bed with red eyes, heads resting in their hands as they maintained their vigil. The AD introduced us and asked if it was ok for Rufus to sit on the bed with Ms. J. The family the was happy to have us and shared how much Ms. J loved her animals, especially dogs. I allowed Rufus to say hi to the family and then we turned our attention to Ms. J. She lay still, eyes open, struggling with every breath. I held Rufus in place she could see him and then placed him gently between her legs near the foot of the bed.
There was no perceptual response from Ms. J, but I sensed the family was happy to see her with something she loved throughout her life. Rufus, however, did not do as I had anticipated. He stood there, stiff legged, facing towards the head of the bed and then began to walk that direction. I was not sure what to do as he began to walk up her torso, but the family seemed unconcerned so I sat back, but was keeping a close eye on the situation. Rufus proceed up the stomach, until he was standing with his front paws on her chest. He paused there for just a second and then began to lean his head in until his nose was mere centimeters from Ms. J's lips.
I had never seen Rufus do this before. This was not the first time I had placed him into a bed with a patient, but the others were not on the verge of death like Ms. J. I looked for a signal from the family that they were concerned about her comfort, but I saw none; instead what I saw was a look of amazement. I too was taken back but the gentleness with which Rufus was moving and how closely he had placed his nose to her mouth. He stayed in this position for what seemed like minutes and I could see he was sniffing ever so delicately and looking up towards the eyes of this woman he had never met. I know it easy to erroneously personify the behavior of animals, but Rufus seemed to be demonstrating extraordinary levels of compassion and understanding for this dying woman.
When he finally began to ease his way back to the foot of the bed, I could feel a shift in the energy of the room. When he reached the foot of the bed and nestled himself into the crook of Ms. J's leg, I could not help but be overcome by emotions. I felt all the sadness appropriate to the situation, but also a sense of astonishment in what Rufus had done. I looked to the family and saw they were equally taken with what we had all just witnessed.
As Rufus relaxed, the family asked all sorts of questions about Rufus. I was able to share his story of survival and transformation and how we have been together for less than a year. That information only made the experience more unbelievable, and even brought a smile to their faces as they marveled at this little dog who just wondered into a dark moment in their lives. A few minutes passed had passed when Rufus stood, walked to the edge of the bed and signaled that he wanted to be picked up. I took that to mean it was time for us to go.
I grabbed Rufus, gave my condolences to the family, and they thanked us profusely for coming in. As I left the room I heard them commenting about how magical the experience was for them and I could not agree more. I knew senior shelter dogs would make great therapy animals, but my expectations were shattered by this experience. We may not know why Rufus did what he did, but I know the impact that it had on the family of Ms. J.
We might not save the world with our efforts, but we will make a difference wherever we go.