June 20, 2011 -- Every time paramedic Jan Erceg thinks about Kevin McClain, she gets goose bumps. Of the thousands of patients she's seen in more than three decades on the job, she says McClain is one she'll never forget.
His story will be burned in her memory because of the bond the dying man shared with his dog, Yurt, a connection Erceg said "defies explanation."
"I've been a paramedic so long -- you get kind of hardened sometimes, and things like this make you realize you haven't seen it all and you should never lose your humility in life,"said Erceg, 54.
McClain, who had been diagnosed with lung cancer, would later affect several others in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his life taking on new meaning as he neared death.
Brandi Garrett, 28, who looked after McClain at the Dennis and Donna Oldorf Hospice House of Mercy, said McClain worried about where his dog would go after he died and who would take care of her. But most of all, he wanted to see her one last time. McClain had lived with Yurt ever since she was about 6 weeks old, Garrett said.
"He wasn't very communicative," Garrett said of McCalin. "The entire time he was there, he only stated his goal was to see his dog. That was really all he was concerned with."
McClain had been living in his car in a Walmart parking lot when paramedics found him unconscious in early May. Although he was very sick and barely able to take care of himself, Yurt was healthy, well-fed and groomed.
They brought McClain to a hospital, and Yurt to Cedar Rapids Animal Care and Control.
Erceg first met Yurt while volunteering at the animal shelter last month. The dog appeared to be a cross between a Sheltie and a Collie. She was about 8 years old and seemingly terrified.
Erceg didn't yet know McClain, but that soon changed. Paramedics were called to transfer a man from the Mercy Medical Center hospital to a hospice -- and Erceg happened to be working at the time.
As she and her partner transported McClain to his new room, he told Erceg he had a dog -- and her name was Yurt.
Erceg remembered the name from the shelter: "Right there I knew. I connected all the dots."
She resolved to unite the two: Yurt, who seemed miserable in the kennel, and McClain, who was spending his last days without his most loyal friend, with no family members at his bedside.
"I think he had a hard life," Erceg said.
The hospice arranged for Yurt to visit McClain, and Erceg drove Yurt over in an ambulance.
"This dog, I swear to God she knew where she was going. She was just freaking out -- yipping and shrieking. We got to the hospice house, and she just made a beeline for the front door," Erceg said.
Yurt headed straight toward McClain's room.
"She made a right-hand turn and another right-hand turn, and that dog led me down the hall," Erceg recalled.
When they arrived, Garrett said, McClain was in what appeared to be a deep sleep. Yurt jumped on the bed, and Erceg said it was "like watching her pour herself over his body -- she laid completely on top of him."
Erceg said she took McClain's hand and put it on top of the dog's head, repeating the motion over and over again until McClain's fingers began to move.
Man's Dying Wish: To Be Reunited With Dog
"All of a sudden his eyes just opened up -- bam. He just looked at her. She started licking his face, his neck, his arms -- she got right into his face and looked into his eyes," Erceg said. "Within a few minutes he had just a complete grab and hold on her."
Erceg and the other hospice workers in the room could only hear McClain mumble, but he and his dog never lost eye contact.
"Several people had to leave because they were just overcome," she said. "We all cried a little bit."
After more than an hour, Erceg gently tried to remove Yurt from the bed, but McClain grabbed his dog's head and kept stroking it.
Erceg began to cry as she remembered his final words to Yurt. "He told her 'behave. You behave.' ... That was his acceptance -- he knew that was going to be the last time he saw her."
Garrett said, "It was heartwarming and heart-wrenching at the same time … knowing Kevin was going to leave us really pulled at your heart."
McClain died the next day.
Happy Ending for Yurt
Eric and Kate Ungs of Marion, Iowa, had been mourning the death of their black lab, Kaia, who died of old age. Then they found Yurt's biography on a website. It said she was a loyal dog, good with kids and had a "compelling story."
"I said, 'Look at her honey! She's so cute!" said Kate Ungs, who owns a handbag boutique called Purse-n-ality. "We took her on a walk and fell in love with her."
She and her husband, a digital marketer, adopted Yurt last week.
"We're lucky we have her," Kate Ungs, 28, said. "Our home was so empty."
And Yurt seems to be following McClain's advice. The Ungs report the dog has been exceptionally well-behaved, is already housebrokenand "very obedient and intelligent."
But it seems she still misses McClain.
"At night she starts to kind of cry a little bit and gets really snuggly," Kate Ungs said. "We feel like that was the kind of time when she used to snuggle with her old owner."
Eric Ungs, 27, jogs with Yurt every morning.
"She has tons of energy and is definitely the one who is leading the run for sure," he said.
When the story about McClain surfaced in local media, the couple received several uplifting messages on Facebook and the two still marvel at the impact both Yurt and McClain made on the community.
"He just loved her and provided more for her than what he was able to do for himself." Kate Ungs said. "It speaks volumes for that man and shows the loyalty she repaid him with."