Animal Hospice – A Love So Strong

Originally published by Evergreen Newspapers





Robin’s hair was white, and short, and terribly thin. Her drawn face was gray, and deeply seamed by suffering. Robin was surely dying, but at least she wasn’t dying alone.

She had a Mount Evans hospice nurse who visited often, and then more often, and then nearly every day, helping to manage Robin’s pain and give her what ease might be possible for a 61-year-old woman enduring the final stages of ovarian cancer.

And Robin had Jamocha.

“Jamocha was a 13-year-old golden retriever,” recalls Julie Nelson, a registered nurse and Mount Evans intake coordinator. “Robin was a single gal and lived way up on Squaw Pass. She’d been on her own for a long time, except for Jamocha, and they apparently had a really special bond. I don’t know exactly what her connection with that dog was, but Jamocha was like her soul mate.”

However strong that bond, it seemed certain that the cancer must prove stronger. One morning Robin’s nurse called Nelson, hoping for a favor.

“Robin had reached the point where she couldn’t really keep Jamocha at home anymore,” Nelson explains. “Her nurse wanted to know if I’d be willing to take him on as a hospice dog.”

Truth is, Robin’s nurse didn’t exactly phone Nelson at random. The Nelson family’s single-minded affection for golden retrievers was no secret around the Mount Evans office, and their Conifer home seemed as good a fit for Jamocha as could likely be found. Even so, Nelson hesitated.

“We’d recently lost a 13-year-old golden we raised from a puppy,” she says. “It was pretty hard on everybody, and I wasn’t sure we wanted to take on another one right away, especially one that old.”

If Nelson had to think it over, she didn’t have to think too long. The chances of somebody adopting Jamocha were slim to none, and the alternative was simply unacceptable. The nurse delivered Robin’s cherished companion to Nelson at her Mount Evans desk that very afternoon, and by nightfall Jamocha was already an indispensable part of the Nelson household.

“We’ve only owned goldens, so it took about 10 seconds to fall in love. He fit right into our family.”

It didn’t hurt that Jamocha chose that moment to become particularly loveable.

“The weird thing is, he was 13, but right away he started acting like a puppy. For that whole week he was very energetic, and very playful. Jamocha played with all of our toys – all of them – and ate an amazing amount of food.”

It was too good to last, of course, and it didn’t.

“One day he just seemed to lose his appetite, and he lost his energy. I talked to Robin’s nurse on the phone that night. When I told her Jamocha wasn’t doing well, she said she wasn’t surprised because his mom was dying. That was the day Robin entered the final stages before death. She was actively dying.”

So much had Jamocha aged in those few hours that by evening he could no longer manage the short trip upstairs to his bed without help. Rather than make him try, Nelson lugged his dog-bed downstairs to the living room. And rather than see her beloved new friend sleep by himself in a strange place, Nelson’s youngest child, 11-year-old Carrie, asked permission for a sleepover.

“Carrie had known that dog for a grand total of 10 days, but she wanted to sleep downstairs with him so he wouldn’t be lonely.”

That night, Nelson tucked Carrie into a sleeping bag laid on the floor next to Jamocha and went upstairs to bed. By morning, the dog’s condition had plainly become grave.

“He wouldn’t eat at all. He just laid there like he was sick.”

It was Carrie who first suggested a possible reason for Jamocha’s abrupt decline.

“This is the crazy part,” Nelson says. “When I came down in the morning she said ‘I think Robin died.’ I asked her why she would think that. She said ‘I think I saw her last night.’”

A thoughtful girl, and not one normally given to flights of fancy, Carrie explained that she’d been awakened by the soft sound of a woman’s voice. Lifting her head, she’d clearly observed a stranger with thick, shoulder-length brown hair seated in a chair next to Jamocha. The woman spoke in hushed tones, and the dog responded with absolute attention.

“Carrie said she couldn’t hear what the lady was saying, but Jamocha obviously knew her.”

Then, in that uncomplicated and perplexing way peculiar to children, Carrie had merely rolled over and gone back to sleep. And that morning, with her daughter’s curious account still fresh in her mind, Nelson called Robin’s nurse.

“For whatever reason, Carrie was right. Robin had died during the night.”

Jamocha never again rose from his dog-bed, or took another bite of food. He simply closed his eyes, and before the sun reached full height slipped quietly away.

“We were all crying,” Nelson says. “My husband said ‘Promise me we’ll never do this again.’ In that short time Jamocha had become a true part of our family. But as painful as it was when he died, it was an amazing experience for all of us.”

Carrie may get her practical nature from her mom. While Nelson has seen her share of remarkable things in her years as a nurse, she certainly wasn’t ready to accept her daughter’s strange account as concrete fact. Then again, she wasn’t quite ready to dismiss it, either.

“Within 48 hours Jamocha went from really good health for a dog his age, to dead,” she says. “That’s got to make you think.”

With a little digging, Nelson was able to locate a photograph of two women, one of them Robin in younger, better days. She’d been an attractive woman with thick, brown tresses cut to the shoulder. A few days later, and without revealing anything about its subjects, Nelson nonchalantly ran the photo past Carrie.

“Right away she said ‘That’s her, mom. That’s the lady who was talking to Jamocha.’”

Sometimes little girls see things that aren’t true. Sometimes old dogs die just because they’re old. And sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where the truth lies, or why things happen the way they sometimes do. Thinking back on her one-time best friend, Carrie is plagued by no such doubts.

“To this day she swears Robin came to get Jamocha.golden-woman


Animal Hospice – A Friendly Voice

Originally published by Evergreen Newspapers









The folks at Mount Evans couldn’t long endure their calling’s intense emotional rigors if they weren’t compassionate by nature.

A nurse, social worker or volunteer may attend an ailing patient for years, spending countless hours in their home, easing their hurts, seeing to their comfort, listening to stories of better days, and, too often, quietly marking the course of their final decline. Professional interest inevitably becomes friendship, which blossoms into much deeper affection.

“You become a part of their family,” explains certified nursing assistant Brenda Barrett, a Mount Evans mainstay for 27 years. “And it’s like you adopt them into your own family, too.”

In many cases the caregiver’s adopted family includes a beloved pet. While caregivers are under no legal obligation to care for a patient’s pet, they may come to feel a strong personal one: You do for family.

“I once buried a client’s dog for her. She adored that dog, and it meant a lot to her that it had a real burial. There was just nobody else to do it.

“It’s not just a pet to them,” Barrett says. “Near the end, it can be their closest, dearest companion, and they worry a lot about what will happen to it after they die.

About 18 years ago, Barrett entered the home of a Buffalo Creek client for the first time.

“Her cat was sitting on her tray table when I walked in, eating breakfast off of her plate,” Barrett smiles. “It was an old, fat, gray shorthair. It never meowed, it just made this awful croaking noise. I worked with that woman for more than four years, and when the end got close she became really concerned about what would happen to her cat. Her family wouldn’t take it because they wanted to travel, and she was heartbroken that it would probably wind up in the pound. I mean, who wants a 12-year-old cat?

“It was very upsetting for her, so I said ‘I’ll take it.’ I’m not really a cat-person – they’re too independent for me – but I figured it only had a couple of years left, anyway. It lived to be 26. I had it for a whole other life. The last week of its life it lived on my bed. I fed it with an eye-dropper. I’m still not a cat-person, but I did love that cat.”

For the record, Barrett is a bird-person.

“I had a pair of peach-faced love birds, and I had a conure parrot named Chili. He was kind of bite-y.”

A long while back, Barrett took on a new client named Mary, an ailing 83-year-old Floridian who’s family brought her to Evergreen so she could spend her last days among kin.

“She could be cantankerous, and she was definitely spunky, and very independent,” Barrett recalls. “Her nickname was ‘Casino Kate’ because she used to coerce her family into taking her to Blackhawk.”

Along with a lively spirit, Mary brought with her to Evergreen a 15-year-old grey conure parrot named Misty. Painted in shades of slate and ash, Misty had bright yellow eyes and a companionable gift of gab.

“That bird was her whole life,” says Barrett. “The day before Mary died her daughter asked me if I knew anyone who wanted a bird. It took me about 30 seconds to say ‘I’ll take her.’ Then I immediately thought ‘What did I just do?’ Parrots can live to be 75 or 100 years old. I basically made a lifetime commitment.”

Then again, Barrett’s life’s work is an exercise in commitment. After making that somewhat hasty promise, Barrett broke the good news to Mary.

“She was failing rather quickly, but I think she was afraid to go because she was worried Misty would end up in a shelter. When I told her that Misty would have a good home with me, she was so happy, and so relieved. It felt good that I could give her that peace.”

It took Barrett’s dog, Baby, a little while to warm up to the household’s new chatterbox.

“Misty can bark like three different dogs, and that bothered Baby at first.”

But pup and parrot are fast friends, now, or at least respectful cohabitants, and these days Misty reserves most of her verbal tricks for Barrett.

“She beeps like the stove timer, and she creaks like a squeaky door opening. And if I sleep a little late in the morning she’ll say ‘peekaboo!’ until I wake up.”

Misty also has more conventional manners of expression. “It’s not going to rain,” Misty will announce, regardless of observable weather. “I can talk. Can you fly?” And Misty can be indelicate. “Ya’ gonna’ go poopy? Go poopy!”

“I’m trying to change ‘Go poopy’ to ‘Go Broncos’,” winces Barrett.

And always, Misty is a poignant, sometimes even uncanny reminder of a feisty woman long since departed.

“Misty laughs like Mary, and coughs like Mary,” Barrett says.

And, every now and then, Misty asks, “Where are you, Mary?”



Animal Hospice – All of God’s Creatures

Originally published by Evergreen Newspapers






Shorty is a courtly cat.


Fluffy and golden-eyed and comfortably plump, Shorty is at all times sober in his demeanor, and wears that perpetual look of supreme self-satisfaction distinctive to the finer classes. Shorty is also a generous cat, and one that doesn’t forget a kindness. Once or twice a year, Shorty dispatches a trusted representative to Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice bearing his sincere and tangible regards.

“He’s a sweet man, very friendly, and he always has ‘a peso from Shorty’”, smiles Debbie Schwartz, who accepts each gift in the winking spirit with which it’s given. “His wife was a Mount Evans hospice patient, and ever since she died he comes in once or twice a year with a donation from Shorty. Never anything huge, but always something, and always in person.”

After gratefully receiving Shorty’s benefactions for a time, Schwartz impudently requested a photograph of the reclusive patron. A gracious cat, Shorty was pleased to send one along with his very next bequest.

“You can see from the picture he’s a cat of great dignity,” says Schwartz, with a twinkle. “The man told me it’s his job to take good care of Shorty, because Shorty took such good care of his wife. And he said it was very important to do something for Mount Evans, because Mount Evans took such good care of all of them. And that’s why we always get ‘a peso from Shorty.’”





If Mount Evans doesn’t have much official interaction with the lower orders, it has a whole lot of the informal kind.


That’s hardly surprising in a semi-rural mountain area where pets are as common as pine trees and come in a wide variety of people-friendly shapes and sizes. Sallie Wandling remembers one dark and stormy winter’s day when she found herself marooned among the beasts of the field.

“Long before cell phones, texting and twitter, I was visiting a patient who lived on a ranch in Pine,” recalls Wandling, now Mount Evans’ director of community relations. “He was elderly, and a bit grumpy, and he always answered the door in his underwear, even on this day when it was snowing.”

Still, even cranky old exhibitionists deserve proper care, so Wandling troopered on. As bad luck would have it, things only got less comfortable at the visit’s conclusion.

“I must have left my lights on, so my car battery died,” she says. “I went back in and used his phone, but it wasn’t a place I really wanted to wait it out.  I was seriously stuck, sitting in my car, in the snow, waiting for a staff member to come and help me jump my car.”

And yet, as alone as she was, Wandling had plenty of company.

“While I waited a good hour, the patient’s cattle gathered around my car, licking the salt off my windows while my car swayed back and forth to the rhythm of the snow and wind.”





Compassion is a constant value, like the speed of light, or gravity. As a general rule, people who have it can’t un-have it. True compassion can’t be turned on and off at will, or selectively applied. It’s in the bones.

When Mount Evans intake coordinator Evelyn Newton’s 17-year-old cat, Spirit, began her final surrender to time and decay, Newton did both what her heart commanded, and what she was trained to do. She turned the principles of hospice to Spirit. If it was a natural act of compassion, it also imparted an unexpected lesson on the constant value of mortality.

“I was amazed at how similar her journey was to the patients I had taken care of in the past,” Newton says. “She would have good days followed by days of sleep. Her energy level slowly decreased until she slept most of the time. She quit eating solid food, then canned food, and finally drank only water. She lost weight. During this period she found comfort, and could still purr, when lying in our laps.

“Her final days were typical – sleep, difficult to arouse, and a change in breathing habits. The last two days my husband and I took turns holding her on our chest. The last night of 2012 she took her final breath while being held by my husband. She never showed any signs of pain or distress during the whole process.

“I do believe that, in old age, all of God’s creatures die the same way. They just need love, care and support during the process.”

Smiling through the tears – Camp Comfort helps bereaved children find their smiles

Last weekend, as on most summer days, the Rocky Mountain Village Easter Seals Camp at Empire Junction was alive with children’s shouts and laughter.

Dozens of kids between the ages of 6 and 12 spent two glorious days hiking Clear Creek Canyon’s green heights, singing time-tested campfire songs, eating hearty camp chow and bunking down with new friends on rustic camp beds. To grown-up eyes, it all looked wonderfully innocent, carefree and life-affirming – a Norman Rockwell picture of idyllic childhood memories.

But there was plenty on last weekend’s camp schedule besides horseback riding and watercolors. For instance, each camper was asked to describe how they felt when their secure little worlds exploded.

“In my shoulders I felt afraid,” said a pony-tailed angel named Emily, who lost her dad to cancer last year. Maybe 8 years old, Emily wore pink socks and an over-sized pink sweatshirt. Like the eight others in her “Chipmunks” group, she’d tried to plot the course of her personal tsunami on an outline of her thin 4-foot frame traced on an Emily-sized piece of paper. She spoke clearly, but seemed unsure of whether she wanted to giggle or to cry.

“In my arms I felt sleepy,” Emily continued. “In my mouth I wanted to yell.”

One at a time, the other children in Rocky Mountain Village’s picturesque Genesee Hall took their turn, sometimes confidently, sometimes quietly, sometimes tearfully, reliving the darkest hour of their darkest day. The small audience listened with sincere interest. It was ground they knew well.

“In my stomach I felt worried.”

“I felt cold in my legs.”

“My heart is where I felt lonely.”

After half an hour of intense personal revelation, the Chipmunks packed up their tracings, put on their shoes and ran chattering out the door. It was time to try the camp’s zip-line, and serious matters blew instantly away in the clean mountain breeze. That’s how it goes at Camp Comfort.

“Probably the most striking thing about kids is that, unlike adults, they can alternate their grief,” explained Camp Comfort co-director Wendy Snow, a social worker with the Mount Evans Hospice. “They can spend an hour talking and crying about the death of a parent or sibling, then turn right around and go fishing, and really have fun doing it. They’re amazing.”

For that matter, Camp Comfort is amazing. The Mount Evans Home Health and Hospice program is one of precious few in the country specifically designed to help children deal with grief. Today, the program runs two weekends a summer and is attracting favorable notice from coast to coast. In theory, the camp costs $150 per weekend per child but, in practice, virtually no one is ever turned away.

“Sally Wandling is the person who really got Camp Comfort started, and she used to say that children are the forgotten grievers,” Snow said. “It’s true. When a parent’s spouse dies, they’re often overwhelmed by their own grief and all the other stuff that comes after a death, and the child’s grief gets forgotten. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just what happens.”

To supplement the natural restorative powers of fresh air, lush forests and soaring vistas, each camper is issued a short workbook to fill out. Called “Healing My Heart,” it not only gives surviving parents a crucial road-map to what’s on their child’s mind, it’s often a grieving child’s first opportunity to assess their own situation.

“It makes them think about what’s happened, and how it’s affected them,” said Snow’s co-director, Barb Lamperski. “Kids don’t really know how to talk about their grief, and in schools they don’t have anyone to talk to who will ask the questions and listen to the answers. At Camp Comfort, they get to talk to other kids who’re going through what they’re going through. It makes losing a loved one seem more normal and less scary.”

Down at the fishing dock, where a handful of volunteers from Evergreen Trout Unlimited were hosting their customary and decidedly low-impact fishing clinic, Littleton twins Jeff and Joe, who lost their mom rather suddenly to illness, looked perfectly normal and didn’t seem scared at all. Tall, red-haired and 13, the brothers took turns casting into a well-stocked trout pond. After only a few throws, Joe hooked a spirited 10-inch rainbow, proudly admired it for a moment or two, and then released it back into the water.

“I like all the activities, and I really liked the zip-line,” said Joe, his soft smile at once genuine and tentative. “You get to do a lot of stuff you don’t normally do. It’s fun.”

“It was pretty tough at first,” admitted Jeff. “When you have to tell your story, it’s really tough to talk about. But once you get through it and you hear everybody else’s stories, it’s nice to know that other kids have gone through the same thing.”

At Camp Comfort, that willingness to speak frankly about tragic loss and suffocating grief can be disconcerting, even shocking, to the uninitiated. But if the campers are candid about their broken hearts, they don’t dwell on them. Pain is merely an overfull piece of baggage they bear in common, and sharing its weight between them lightens the load for all. But it could be hard to hear, just the same.

“The rules all changed, and everything was different. I just didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I was sad, but it kind of felt nice that people who didn’t used to like me were nicer to me.”

“It’s nice when people say you look just like them.”

One of the most important amenities Camp Comfort offers its guests is a ready-made buddy. At check-in on Friday evening, each child was assigned a dedicated guide and companion to help orient them to camp life, listen to whatever needed listening to, and generally behave as a good buddy should.

“Leaving home after a parent dies can be scary, and we want the kids to feel safe and secure and to know that we’re going to take good care of them,” Snow explained. “The buddies are theirs for the weekend, and their only job is to devote all of their attention to the child and do whatever they want to do. Buddies are all volunteers, and they aren’t counselors, per se. They’re here to be the child’s friend.”

And that’s exactly what they looked like. Walking side-by-side and sometimes hand-in-hand, little people and their big people were everywhere seen smiling and chatting like old chums. Jeff’s old chum happened to be Golden resident Pat O’Connell, who’s finishing up his 6th year as a Camp Comfort buddy. While O’Connell freely admitted that a free weekend at camp is its own reward, he wasn’t in it for the s’mores.

“I had a friend who passed away many years ago, and another friend said I should do Camp Comfort,” explained Pat, standing just out of range of Jeff’s flailing hook. “It’s a good perspective re-set. It really makes you re-focus on what’s important.”

Across the way, the Owls assembled in the art cabin to paint colorful pictures of everyone in their lives who still loved and cared for them. With just two days to reach diverse wounded psyches, Camp Comfort takes a layered approach that seeks as much to engage as to educate. Once the markers come out, kids who could hardly utter a sound in the feelings workshop become eloquent in bright blues and reds and yellows.

“Children express themselves in different ways,” Snow said, “so we reach out to them in different ways.”

Somewhere down the valley, beyond the aspen groves to the east, a sudden eruption of squeals and hollering indicated where the “Eagle” group was trying out Rocky Mountain Village’s combination climbing tower and zip-line platform. One by one, the fledglings climbed about 25 feet to that high aerie, hooked onto a stout metal cable and took wing. Within the space of 100 yards, screams of utter terror became screams of ecstatic triumph and ended as the kind of joyous, non-specific screams that nobody over 18 can truly comprehend. But is pure exhilaration and childish delight really pertinent to Camp Comfort’s worthy mission? Absolutely.

“If this was just a grief camp where everybody sat around and cried, nobody would come, and it wouldn’t do the kids any good,” said Snow, as another shrieking meteor zzzinged overhead. “Fun is a great way to deal with grief, because it gets you out of your down-and-out mood. And it’s a good lesson for the kids that it’s okay to have fun even if you’re sad. It’s okay to feel happy.”

If smiles and good cheer are anything to go by, Camp Comfort works. Nearly 50 young children, each with a very good reason to feel angry, depressed and bitter, went home after last weekend’s adventure far stronger and healthier than when they arrived.

“The other day a mom called me,” Snow said. “She told me her son hadn’t cried since his father had died, but when she picked him up from camp he started talking about his dad and crying as soon as he got in the car. They talked about him and cried the whole way home. She was just so glad and relieved. What happens here is so important, and so wonderful.”

If Snow has a filing cabinet full of success stories to warm her during the winter months, the story that most closely concerns Evergreen resident Bill Lathrop is his buddy Trevor’s. Trevor was just 10 years old when his big brother, Tyler, was struck and killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle near his Arvada home two years ago.

“It happened on the last day of school,” Trevor said.

Last weekend was Trevor’s second tour at Camp Comfort, the same as Bill.

“The first year was really hard, but it’s easier this year,” said Trevor, softly but steadily. “I like having a buddy, and because I was here before I can help the new kids. It’s a little scary, at first.

“I wasn’t really sure I wanted to come here the first time, but now I’m glad I did. It really helped. I feel a lot better.”