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Tabby Cat Makes Life Easier for Dying Veterans

Close-up of an orange cat sitting in a hallway.

Tom takes a moment to relax and reflect before continuing his rounds at the Salem VA’s hospice unit. Photo by Marian McConnell, Salem VA

By Tom Cramer, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, November 6, 2014

Surrounded by his family, World War II Veteran Edwin Gehlert lay quietly dying in a VA hospice unit in Salem, Virginia. He took a few final, shallow breaths.

At that moment, an orange tabby cat named Tom jumped onto his bed, curled up beside him and placed a furry orange paw in the Army Veteran’s open hand.

“That cat took him right to heaven,” said Elizabeth Gehlert, the Veteran’s wife of 68 years. “It was a beautiful passing and that cat is the one who made it happen.”

The Veteran’s daughter, Pamela Thompson, described the orange tabby as her lifeline on that difficult day.

“I kept telling daddy to let go, to go towards the light,” she said. “When Tom put his paw in daddy’s hand, it was like God was telling me he had ahold of my dad and that everything was OK.  That’s how I felt. I felt a peace come over me.”

A Little Person

Laura Hart, a physician assistant who works on the hospice unit at the Salem VA Medical Center, said Tom seems to have a sixth sense (in addition to his nine lives) when it comes to being in the right place at the right time.

“Tom has known what to do since the first day he was here,” she said. “I think there’s a little person inside him.”

Hart said family members visiting a dying Veteran do a lot of watching and waiting, so it can be a welcome diversion when a cat wanders in to visit or simply take a snooze.

“Having a cat in the room will take your mind off what’s going on,” she said. “He’ll do something silly – he’ll jump in the air or something and everyone will laugh. It breaks the tension.”  

Tom’s furry, comforting presence is also a big help to family members who need to return home after visiting with a loved one all day. “When they leave for the day and the cat's still on the Veteran’s bed, it gives them some comfort,” Hart explained. “They don’t feel so bad about leaving. They’re sort of like, ‘OK, Tom’s here. It’s OK if I leave now.’ It makes them feel better.”

 He seems to know who he needs to spend time with. He just seems to know. 
— Dorothy Rizzo, palliative care coordinator, Salem VA Medical Center

No Cat Zone

Hart said Tom will sometimes spend hours with a dying Veteran, but then disappears for a time after the Veteran has finally passed. “Afterwards he kind of goes into hibernation for hours,” she said. “He finds some corner and goes to sleep. I guess he’s just recharging.”

Not everyone on the hospice unit is a cat lover, however.

“We’ve had a few patients who’ve said, ‘I don’t want that cat in my room,’” Hart observed. “When that happens, we put a sign outside their door that says, ‘No Cat Zone.’ But of course, that’s the room Tom wants to go into all the time. He’s like, ‘I need to be in there. I’ll change their mind.’"

There’s no doubt Tom regards the entire hospice unit as his personal domain.

“He’s interested in everything that goes on here,” Hart said. “He even comes to our team meetings, which we have twice a week. Sometimes the door to the meeting room will be shut, and we’ll hear Tom scratching at the door. He’ll scratch until we let him in.”

No Cuddling, Please

Dorothy Rizzo, palliative care coordinator on the hospice unit, described the orange tabby as a much-needed normalizing factor in an otherwise somber environment.

“There’s something about the presence of an animal that has a calming effect,” she said. “Watching the cat or petting him takes you out of the sad moment you’re in. Animals, like babies, are life-affirming in a way.

“It’s not that Tom’s an especially cuddly cat,” she added. “He’s not into cuddling, but he’ll curl up right beside you.”

And Tom holds no grudges against staff or family members who are simply not ‘cat’ people. He’ll never fail to use his special talents to assist you in your time of need, even if you don’t like him all that much.

“We had a Veteran here whose daughter did not like cats,” Rizzo said, “so when Tom came into the room she’d ignore him or shoo him away. One night she was here with her dad and stepped out of his room for a few minutes to take a break. Tom went out there after her, wrapped himself around her legs and meowed at her. That made her think she should maybe go back to her dad’s room and check on him, which she did just in time. Her father died moments later.”

Image of an elderly, bed-ridden Veteran reaching out to touch an orange tabby cat.

Tom and his friend, Air Force Veteran Erwin ‘Skip’ Wyman, share a quiet moment together. Photo by Laura Hart, Salem VA

That Helpless Feeling

Betty Gillespie, a psychologist who works on the hospice unit, said family members seem to need Tom more than the Veterans who are dying.
“A lot of these Veterans are very stoic,” she observed. “These are men who fought in WW II, Korea and Vietnam. It almost seems like the family members need more emotional support than the patients themselves.

“Families often feel helpless,” she continued. “You’re watching your loved one die and you know you can’t save them. Sometimes you can’t even talk to them, or wake them up. All you can do is watch and wait. But Tom provides you with some comfort; he’s something for you to focus on. Because when a tabby cat casually walks into the room, it sends a message that everything is OK, everything is as it should be."

“Tom’s like a good piece of music,” she added. “He instantly connects with everyone in the room.”

The Good Cat

Does the psychologist feel, as others do, that Tom possesses an almost supernatural gift of knowing which patient on the hospice unit is about to die?

“He’s just a cat,” she said. “I don’t think he has ESP or anything. He’s just a good cat.”

Air Force Veteran Skip Wyman, who has been on the hospice unit for several weeks, eagerly looks forward to his daily visit from the good cat.

“He was in my room yesterday for about two hours,” he beamed. “Then he walked out. I don’t know where he went. I haven’t seen him this morning yet. He’s around here somewhere.”

Wyman said Tom reminds him of a feline buddy he once hung around with.

“I call him Knothead because he reminds me of a cat I had when I was a younger man,” said the 79-year-old. “He’s the perfect picture of Knothead. They look just alike. And Knothead would sleep on my bed with me, just like Tom.”

One evening, after spending some time sleeping on Wyman’s bed, the orange tabby abruptly jumped to the floor and headed for the door. Tom clearly had business to attend to elsewhere on the unit.

Wyman called after him. “I said, ‘Tom, are you going to bed?’ And he just kept walking out the door. So then I said, ‘Knothead, are you going to bed?’ And darned if that cat didn’t stop and just look at me.”

Was Wyman perhaps conversing with his old friend Knothead? Did the cat turn around, jump back onto Wyman’s bed and spend the night with him, just like in the old days?

“Oh no,” Wyman laughed. “After a second or two he just kept walking out the door."

“He hasn’t been here to see me today yet,” he added. “I’m going to get the nurse to go look for him.”