Young dog’s legacy brings joy to palliative care patients

Young dog’s legacy brings joy to palliative care patients
Weekly visits from Bogey, a golden Labrador retriever that serves as a therapy dog, are helping to cheer patients in UAB's Palliative and Comfort Care Unit. Dr. Rodney Tucker (right), director of the center, was instrumental in helping establish support of pet-therapy teams at UAB, with assistance from the nonprofit Hand in Paw in Birmingham. (Holly Gainer/UAB)

Rodney Tucker, M.D., and Billy Connelley knew that Anna, their Shih Tzu puppy, was unique the moment they brought her home.

“Anna was a very special little puppy who had the charm of a tiny soul,” said Tucker, director of the Center for Palliative and Supportive Care at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “She really ran to everyone with her tongue out wanting to make sure you noticed that she loved you. She never met a stranger and just had a special healing quality to her.”

Tucker and Connelley had planned to train her as a pet partner for Hand in Paw, an organization that aims to improve the health and well-being of others by sending professionally trained Animal-Assisted Therapy Teams into medical centers, schools and various businesses.

Unfortunately, Anna died before she was old enough to train to be a volunteer.

“We wanted to honor her with a fund to help others who want to volunteer with Hand in Paw,” Connelley said. “We knew that, of all of the many animals we have had, she was special.”

The two established Anna’s Fund, which offers financial assistance to volunteer teams to help reduce costs associated with training and supplies that are necessary to become a Hand in Paw Therapy Team. It also provides monetary assistance to current volunteers so they can continue their work.

“We wanted to assist in eliminating financial barriers to teams that wish to be pet partners through offering need-based scholarships through Hand in Paw,” Tucker explained. “For us, it is an opportunity to give back and assist an organization that we believe is at the heart of helping patients heal. Through the magic of animals and their ability to calm and comfort, establishing this fund is a way for us to support therapy teams and encourage others to do so as well.”

Three therapy teams have received scholarships. Hand in Paw hopes to grow that number to increase its pet-therapy teams.

“The fund has not only made it possible for volunteers to overcome financial barriers to become therapy teams, but also supports two annual sessions to educate veterinarians and their staffs about how to identify prospective pet therapy teams,” said Beth Franklin, the founder and director of Donor and Community Relations for Hand in Paw. “These sessions are part of the recruitment plan to increase the number of volunteers. Currently, we have a waiting list of 100 facilities that have requested Hand in Paw visits.”

Continuing a legacy

While Tucker and Connelley were unable to fulfill their dream of training Anna to become part of a pet-therapy team, they are able to see her legacy continue at UAB’s Palliative and Comfort Care Unit.

Casey Schaffer first received assistance from Anna’s Fund in 2017 after her golden retriever, Mulligan, was diagnosed with cancer for the second time.

“Mulligan was first diagnosed with synovial cell carcinoma, and in order to beat it, he had his leg amputated and went through chemotherapy,” Schaffer said. “Once he was in remission, he was thriving. We wanted to use his story to bring hope to others going through scary situations like cancer, so we began volunteering with Hand in Paw.”

Shortly after Schaffer and Mulligan became a pet-partner team, the pup was diagnosed with a new cancer, hemangiosarcoma. In order to save him, he had to undergo an emergency splenectomy.

“We were still paying off the bills from the first cancer, so this second diagnosis, just a year later, hit us like a brick wall,” Schaffer said. “At that point, Mulligan was basically receiving palliative care, so we thought it would be very special for us to visit the Palliative and Comfort Care Unit at UAB. After our first visit, we were offered a grant from Anna’s Fund to help us with some of Mulligan’s rising medical bills. This was right around the holidays, so that kindness not only helped us financially, but also helped our wounded souls tremendously.”

Mulligan died a month later; but like Anna’s, Mulligan’s legacy continues through the work of Schaffer and her new golden retriever, Bogey, who began volunteering with Hand in Paw in October 2018.

“Bogey and I visit the Palliative and Comfort Care Unit every week. He makes me incredibly proud every single visit, and I feel so privileged to be on this journey with him,” Schaffer explained. “I don’t think there is anything I have ever done, both personally or professionally, that has brought me so much warmth and joy.”

Tucker has spent his professional life in the field of palliative care.

“The fact that a recipient of Anna’s Fund volunteers in this area is very meaningful to me,” he said. “Animals have the ability to calm and comfort people, and I’ve been able to see how healing Casey and Mulligan were, and now Casey and Bogey are, to the patients and family members they encounter in the unit.”

The other recipients of Anna’s Fund include a therapy dog that serves as a positive role model to area teenagers through visiting schools and a therapy dog that works with young adults and children with disabilities.

Art & Antiques for Anna’s Fund

To continue to support their fund, Tucker and Connelley and Hand in Paw are hosting Art & Antiques for Anna’s Fund on Friday, May 17. The event will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Hand in Paw Training Facility. Attendees will be able to browse and bid on unique local artwork, have drinks and hors d’oeuvres, and meet with several of the organization’s pet therapy teams.

The items up for auction are listed online. Tickets are $25. To purchase, visit the Art & Antiques Anna’s Fund website.

For more information about Anna’s Fund, visit the Hand in Paw website or contact the organization by calling 205-322-5144.

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