Thursday, April 18, 1996
Working like a dog for good causes

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This was supposed to be about a dog that visits sick people, sort of a human interest story starring an animal. It also seemed like a chance to say something nice about Hospice, which has allowed thousands of people in 15 counties around here to die with dignity.

So, I was eager to meet this dog, although I know she is not unique. The first time I saw a dog in a hospital was at Drake, where I was visiting a boy paralyzed in a diving accident. A nondescript black dog sashayed into the room and clambered quietly onto his bed. I looked around for the germ police, but nobody was paying any attention.

The dog waited a few minutes, then slipped her nose under the boy's hand. The boy could not move anything but his eyes. The dog wriggled a little closer, until the boy's limp hand rested firmly on her head. He grinned as he watched his hand doing the first normal thing since the accident.

It must have taken a person a long time to teach a dog this excruciatingly careful bedside manner. But that was another dog, another time.

The Hospice dog is Keeper, who visits this hospital for the terminally ill every Wednesday, roaming from room to room on a red leash. On the other end of the leash is Keeper's keeper, Betsy Stadnik. As usually is the case with completely wonderful dogs, this one has no pedigree and was a stray.

Black with brown eyebrows, Keeper most likely is a Labrador-Doberman mix. She's calm and friendly, but she has attitude. On this day, she seems distracted, perhaps missing one of her favorite patients, Tom Marrs, who died last month.

According to a rather adoring volunteer staff, Keeper was one huge, regular bright spot in the man's life. His family, in fact, insisted that the dog be allowed to come to the funeral. Which she did. She was accompanied by her owner.

Betsy Stadnik, a nurse, took Keeper to classes to qualify as an official therapy dog, and is chauffeur and sidekick. Betsy and Keeper are two of about 350 Hospice volunteers who tend patients, do various scut work or raise money. The fact is, this city would grind to a charitable halt without people who donate their time.

They are all over the place, and I challenge you not to know one. Boy Scout leaders, room mothers, teacher's aides, cookie bakers, fund-raisers. Next week is National Volunteer Week, and I'll be at one of the many events honoring them.

At the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Awards on Monday, I'll get to meet Andy O'Keefe, a man with multiple sclerosis who tends AIDS patients and delivers meals to the homebound. Catherine Huffner, who is 90 years old, spends about 30 hours every month caring for patients at Drake. Tom Wilson, also 90, tutors kids at an elementary school. Sara Baum, a Finneytown High School senior, serves meals at a homeless shelter.

Honor them? I plan to worship them.

Anyway, Keeper is a therapy dog for Hospice, visiting the gravely ill, going from room to room in her red collar with the official tag and volunteer ID. But Keeper is, after all, a dog. She doesn't have a bus pass. So Betsy Stadnik takes her there. Every Wednesday without fail.

The best human interest stories, really, are still the ones starring humans.