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The Dog Days of Summer

Australian Shepherd visits hospital, may be the best medicine.

September 24, 2018

“I needed you today,” patient Joann Sellers tells Heather and Pat.

Pat Clark worked at Temple University Hospital for 27 years, then had two knees replaced here, followed by back and neck surgery, and for the last few months she’s been a volunteer, bringing her therapy dog, Heather.

It is a remarkable thing to see a dog in a hospital room. Suddenly people don’t look so much like patients.

Pat took Heather, an Australian Shepherd, outside for one last call to nature, and then they were off. Pat packed a bowl for water, a plastic bag and towel in case of accidents, and a bag of treats. First stop, the 8th floor.

Daniel Cobb, a patient for five days, leaned over, accepted a lick from the dog, and whispered into her ear, “Hey, Heather, can you get me out of here? I’ll give you a bone.”

Heather then crossed the room, and nearly got her nose into Ronald Sutton’s oatmeal, which he was all too happy to share, but Pat literally had Heather on a tight leash and pulled her back in time.

Heather also had two paws Sutton’s bed before Pat pulled her back down. Sutton again would have been happy for the companion, but this is an acute care hospital.

They visited Kathleen Kremis, 43, hospitalized with blood clots. “Her eyes are so soulful,” said Kremis.

Just then the loudspeaker erupted: “code blue, 831,” a reminder of where they were. “You made my day,” said Kremis, as Pat and Heather walked out.

Joann Sellers, 75, in the hospital with abdominal pain, has an 18- year-old cat at home and blossomed like a flower when she saw Heather. “I needed you today,” the patient said.

Pat had Heather doing little tricks — spinning in circles, walking through Pat’s legs — in the 8th floor physical therapy room.

“I spent too much time on this floor,” said Pat, who had back surgery four years ago, followed by weeks of therapy. “I was wheeled in and I walked out.”

“This is a super floor,” she added. “They are so good here.”

Pat, 77, brings Heather to Temple twice a month. “It’s giving back,” she said. “It helps people relax in a situation that’s difficult. It’s good.”

Pat claims she is a people person, but she’s also owner of six dogs, two cats, and two birds. “The dogs are my therapy,” she said.

She also owned, and fell from, a horse — “that started all my injuries, the neck, the back,” she said, and noted that she owes her own doctors a great debt of gratitude.

Pat worked at Einstein for 17 years before moving to Temple, where she was hired chief x-ray technician, and held a number of jobs, including as a manager in quality assurance.

Pat tries to see 20 patients on each visit. She got a little delayed talking with Suzette Christian, a patient for the last week but also a kindred spirit, with two rabbits, nine guinea pigs, two dogs, a cat and a cockatiel at home. “My daughter’s starting to get antsy,” Christian said.

One of Pat’s last patients was Martha Meyers, 77, who had been in the hospital for eight weeks, and 12 times in the last eighteen months, because of what she said were extreme fluid buildups. Meyers kept petting Heather, accepting kisses, and was sad to see her go.

“Bye, bye, baby,” said the patient.

Pat and Heather had to get home. On top of everything else, Pat was taking care of her neighbor’s three dogs and nine cages of birds. Tomorrow was trash day. She had to clean the cages.

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.