Thursday, February 6, 2014

Breaking Down the Wall

I approached an Arbor Hospice patient residing in a nursing home cheerfully and asked if she'd like to pet Alpine, Arbor Hospice's therapy dog. She stared straight ahead, lips tightly pursed, stone-faced. No response. I asked again. She turned her dagger-filled eyes and looked into my eyes as she shot these words at me, "I am dying! And you want me to care about THIS?"

Alpine and I are impervious to occasional rejection. Some people don't like dogs, some are afraid and others are simply not in the mood for us that day. But we have never had someone angrily lash out at us.

I was shocked and shaken on the inside. I calmly said, "Okay, we'll go." I turned and walked away - but I only took a few steps.

With no conscious plan, I turned around and went to her side, incapable of walking away with those words hanging in the air. I placed Alpine behind the chair, out of the woman's sight. I don't remember what I said as I put my arm around her shoulders. I do remember that I said something I hoped would break through the wall of anger behind which she appeared to be painfully isolated and alone.

She began, "I can't go anywhere or do anything!"

We sat in silence, partly because I didn't know what to say, partly because I knew full well nothing I said would free her from that truth.

Eventually, I said, "You sound like you're feeling very angry about that."

"Yes, some," she said, the energy drained from her voice.

"And sad?" I asked.

"Yes." She looked up from her wheelchair.

"I'd probably feel angry and sad too," I said.

I put both arms around her and held her. She said, "thank you, love." This shocked me as much as when she lashed out earlier. She repeated those words two more times, "thank you, love." I told her, "I heard your pain and could not walk away from you."

When it was time to leave, I said, "You're a sweet lady." She looked at me and her face softened. I jokingly said, "You really ought to let more people know that!" She smiled the most mischievous grin, as though that was our little secret.

It was the first time I walked away from a patient and the tears flowed.

That's the hospice concept of care - providing comfort and peace for the whole person, physically, spiritually and emotionally.

This blog entry was written by Helen Buccella-Costa, Arbor Hospice Volunteer. You may contact Helen by commenting below or emailing her at


  1. Although the role of Alpine in this poignant story was not his usual, your entry in the world of distress for this patient was brought about your commitment to use Alpine is a special way. It was wonderful that you decided to go bac, without knowing the outcome, but strictly because you cared. You certainly brought the intended love, calmness and compassion to this suffering lady! You and Alpine make a stupendous team! Thanks for sharing this! Sincerely, Pat DeBello ( Long Island, NY and Wilmington, NC)

    1. Thanks for reading and for sharing your comment Pat. :-)

  2. Helen, so often we only see Alpine and fail to see all the love YOU - her primary handler - have to give our patients. Your emotions flow through Alpine and that is why she is so kind, gentle and caring. Thank you for the reminder to take the risk to go back.