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Published: 5/8/2004

Hospice says good-bye to its canine caregiver

Pepper, the first dog to take up residence at Hospice of Northwest Ohio, was given comfort there during her own final days. Pepper, the first dog to take up residence at Hospice of Northwest Ohio, was given comfort there during her own final days.
HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

Somehow, she knew.

"Everyone here is going to die eventually," says Judy Lang, marketing director for Hospice of Northwest Ohio. "But when patients would start to do what we call 'actively dying,' she would wander into that room and lie down and stay with them."

Well, why should that surprise us? Those of us who love dogs can easily attest to their much-welcomed intuition.

One minute, you're on the couch, crying alone. Next minute, you're on the couch and there's a cold nose making inquiries up and down your tear-streaked face.

Pepper was the first dog to take up residence at the hospice agency's bucolic Perrysburg - what? "Facility"? Such a graceless word for death's peaceful oasis. Anyway, no one thought twice to see a black, flat-coated retriever wandering the halls there.

"She had a routine of going through the building and stopping by every patient's doorway," says Judy. "The [assistance] dogs are trained, they're not supposed to enter a room unless they're invited. But of course, she knew who had treats."

Well, the dog was only human.

For eight years, Pepper prowled the hallways of hospice, where it wasn't always clear who took the most comfort: the dog who was patted on the head, or the human who did the patting.

"She affected lives in a very profound way, at a time when people are very vulnerable and need all kinds of TLC, at all different levels," says Judy.

But life happens - and that, of course, includes death.

"She was diagnosed with lymphoma over a year ago," Judy recounts. "We treated her, and she had an extra nine months of high-quality life and was feeling really good. But then it came back."

Mary Mechel, a nurse, was Pepper's caretaker. As the dog slowed down, she began taking Pepper home at night instead of leaving her at the hospice. Pepper was more than happy to share the bed with Mary and Colby, the dog-loving nurse's golden retriever.

As a hospice staffer, Mary understood Pepper's time was dwindling: "You've been through [death] before, you know what's going to happen, but it was different with Pepper. This was Pepper!" We tend to remember hospice workers for the comfort they bestow, but who bestows comfort upon them? Judy says Pepper visited staffers as often as patients.

"Everyone in the organization was made aware that her time was drawing near, and anybody who wanted to say their good-byes could. That's our philosophy here, whether you're a person or a dog."

Although Mary knew Pepper's time had come - her abdomen was swollen, breathing was labored - she says that even she, a hospice nurse, needed "people around me to reassure me."

In true hospice fashion, adds Judy, Pepper was "comfortable until the very second she died, wagging her tail to the end. And she had a good chicken dinner."

Mary Mechel has had dogs for the last 25 years. Pepper wasn't the first dog Mary had to euthanize.

"She was the hardest, though."



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