In the final moments of his life, Edwin Gehlert was surrounded by his family and loved ones. But as he took his last breaths, a somewhat unfamiliar face was curled up right next to Gehlert on his hospital bed. That face belonged to Tom, the tabby cat.
"We had seen Tom in and out of daddy's room on a few of our visits," Gehlert's daughter Pam Thompson said. “But on that day it’s like he knew something was different.”
Tom sat with Gehlert and comforted him and his family, placing his paw in Gehlert's hand immediately after his passing.
“I would never have believed a cat could have touched my heart like this cat did, but I truly felt like God was speaking to me that afternoon through Tom,” Thompson said. “It was as if Tom's paw was God's hand leading my daddy up towards that light to heaven, just as I had been begging him to do for weeks.”
Tom is responsible for many comforting stories since arriving at the VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia, in May 2012.
Laura Hart, the lead physician's assistant at the Salem VA, said she came up with the idea to bring Tom to the palliative care unit after hearing Dr. David Dosa speak at a conference in Denver. Dosa is the author of “Making Rounds with Oscar,” a book about a cat named Oscar who comforted Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing center in Rhode Island.
"We’re trying to make it a home-like environment, which is hard to do in a hospital,” Hart said. “But we know the little things, like a pet, make it more bearable.”
Hart and colleague Dottie Rizzo, the VA's hospice and palliative care coordinator, then began their search for the perfect cat. They found a veterinarian in Salem who asked local shelters for a cat that they think would fit the bill. Salem Animal Shelter immediately thought of their cat Tom. He ended up being the perfect match.
“We have seen first-hand the impact that he makes on the families and the patients and even our staff,” Rizzo said. “A hospice can be a really sad place to be and work and Tom brings a calmness and normalcy to our unit. We try to be a home-like environment and a pet kind of takes it to the level that maybe it is a little more like home here with him.”
Tom helps lift the spirits of patients, families and staff alike, Hart said, noting that families are comforted by his presence, knowing that when they leave the VA their loved ones will find company in a small, furry friend.
“Families don’t want their loved ones being alone, and it’s comforting for them to know Tom is there,” Hart said. “And it’s amazing how many of the families really feel that Tom is there to be with their family member when they die, whether he kind of comes and herds the family into the room right before the patient passes, or he just curls up on a patient’s bed in their final hours.”
And that experience leaves families with a little more peace and serenity in some of their toughest moments, just like it did for Thompson and her family.
“I left the VA that afternoon with a smile on my face and love in my heart knowing that my father was now at peace and on his way to a wonderful new adventure and it was all with the help of Tom the Cat," Thompson said.