You may know about tomcats, but meet Tom the cat who has a very special gift indeed.
He’s the appointed feline friend, counselor and caretaker at Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia. There, he is revered as an animal who may sometimes know more about empathy “in the moment” than his humans who love him just for being “Tom.”
The lovefest goes both ways, as Tom returns affection in kind to the resident veterans of the hospital’s community living center that provides rehabilitation, hospice/palliative care and long-term skilled nursing.
“You can’t beat a good, purring, loving kitty cat,” Army veteran James Gearhart of Bassett, Virginia, told TODAY. He lived in the rehabilitation unit while being treated for throat cancer, and says he’s doing well after being recently discharged.
“Tom knows when someone is having a hard time. He laid on my bed a lot and I rubbed and scratched him the way cats like,” Gearhart said. “One day I gave him some of my Ensure vanilla drink and he drank every bit of it. Then he rubbed on me and licked my hands.”
The hospital’s chief of extended care service, Dr. Blake Lipscomb, told TODAY that Tom stood by him one day when he had to officially pronounce a veteran dead. “Tom looked up at me and meowed. He had been with the veteran and his family at a time that was hardest for them, doing exactly what we wanted him to do — to help make a more low-stress, ‘homelike’ environment.”
In 2012, Dottie Rizzo, chief nurse in the hospital’s extended care service, along with physician assistant Laura Hart, read a book called “Making Rounds with Oscar,” by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician. In it, the doctor documents the story of a cat named Oscar who comforts dementia patients and appears to anticipate when they are about to die.
“We knew we needed a cat just like that,” Rizzo told TODAY. “We enlisted the assistance of a local veterinarian’s office manager who went to a shelter and visited with the cats for a long time before deciding on Tom.”
Both the staff and the cat know that not everyone likes cats — including patients, their families and yes, even hospital staff. “We have a sign that says ‘No Cat Zone,’ which indicates to non-cat-lovers that Tom won’t be in that area,’ Hart told TODAY.
“There are patients who say they don’t love him, but they do end up loving him anyway — they just don’t know it!” she said.
“Then there are families that say they’re ‘allergic,’” Rizzo said. “Within a week, they’re bringing a treat for the cat! We have more than a thousand employees, and some come on their breaks to bring Tom food and just pet him. He recently ‘told off’ an overnight supervisor who forgot to bring his treats.”
She remembers in particular a terminal patient with Parkinson’s disease who couldn’t speak very well. “With Tom in his lap, it was less difficult for him to talk, because rubbing the cat calmed him down and relaxed his vocal cords,” she said.