Even though this post is a tribute to a very special therapy dog who has just passed on, I can say with utmost certainty that he remains very much alive in spirit, and still hard at work healing hearts!
Rescued mutt Baxter went from a life in which no one loved him to one in which he loved everyone. He became a therapy dog who specialized in giving comfort to patients in their final days at the San Diego Hospice and The Institute for Palliative Medicine. And having learned from the best, Baxter's human mom, Melissa Joseph, shared his mission, and intends to continue his legacy in everything she does. "I never really got how I could impact the world until I got Baxter," Melissa says.
Melissa chronicled Baxter's heartwarming encounters in her book, Moments with Baxter. I had the pleasure of speaking with her today, and she told me, "I don't feel like he was mine alone. I feel like I got to be part of a remarkable phenomenon." Baxter passed away at the age of 19 on October 16.
My "moment with Melissa" was in many ways also a "moment with Baxter:" Together, they were a six-legged team working as one. Melissa shared a recent event that revealed not only the positive impact Baxter had on his hospice friends but also Melissa's keen sense of the best way to connect with people in times of need.
Baxter was visiting the hospice on the day that a 36-year old woman who had battled breast cancer was to be transported home to die with family. The woman had come to love Baxter and had shared with staff that his visits literally removed her pain: Pain that she consistently rated at 8 out of 10 in intensity before his visits and at 0 following them. As the gurney was wheeled towards this woman's room, Melissa asked if she could place Baxter on it. This was against the rules, the attendant told her, but Melissa continued to lift Baxter, respectfully assuring the attendant that this would be an important "moment with Baxter." When Baxter arrived in the room on the gurney, the patient laughed and cried at once. She removed her oxygen mask and barked, "Move over, Baxter!" The newly enlightened attendant wheeled them around the hospital grounds for a playful final ride together. Everyone present was grateful for taking part and reminded of the importance of such moments.
Melissa adopted Baxter when he was about two years old. His fearful behavior at the time led her to believe that "something terrible must have happened to him," she recalls. He had been rescued from a life of neglect in which he was left tied up and fed only intermittently. Melissa nursed him through heartworm and mange and restored his frail, malnourished body to health. And then the love that healed him fostered a larger-than-life love that has healed countless others.
According to Kim Heinrich, Director of the hospice's volunteer resources program, which secures Pawsitive Pals Pet Therapy teams for patients, "Some of our best therapy dogs are rescues. There is no breed that is better than another. It is about a quality in a dog, and they can all be trained from there." When asked what Kim will miss most about Baxter, she said, "Baxter's eyes stand out in my mind -- his deep, dark caring eyes. They had a story all their own.
"Baxter thrived in this work all the way to the end," she added.
According to the observations of both Kim and Melissa, Baxter's own failing health seemed to allow his hospice friends to come to terms with their own mortality. "Their focus on alleviating his pain seemed empowering and took them away from their own pain in many ways," Melissa explained.
In the final months of Baxter's life, it was Melissa's turn to offer hospice. She described how he loved when she'd look into his eyes and talk to him. As any good mom would do, she stayed by his side, stroking his head, and assuring him of her love to the very end.
As Melissa talked about the many things she learned from Baxter, she remarked on how the love of a companion animal stands apart from other kinds of love: "Life is complicated. A relationship with a dog is not," she told me. "A dog is not going to disappoint or abandon you. With humans, love always changes. With Baxter, it never changed, and there was always plenty more of it."
When I asked her what Baxter would tell her now to get her though her own grief, Melissa got choked up and shared, "Press on. Pay it forward. Pay his love forward. Baxter is still providing for me, even now."
I encourage everyone to get a copy of this heartwarming book. Grab a box of tissues and have your own "Moment with Baxter!" There is even a plush toy of Baxter available, complete with his own therapy dog vest! Melissa has kindly pledged the proceeds of these sales to animal and hospice charities. I for one intend to give the book and stuffed toy to all of my animal-loving friends this holiday season.
Sadly, like Melissa, many of my close friends have had furry friends pass away recently. As I pay them my respects, I imagine them all frolicking together with Baxter, free of the ailments that a physical body imposes. I send their human survivors my love. May these remarkable creatures rest in peace: Gibson, Socrates and Plato, Pants, Teddy, Fannie, Vela, Edgar, Elvis, Annabelle, Pancakes and of course, Baxter.
To the animals who have passed on, I offer heartfelt thanks. It is the healing that all of you amazing creatures so freely offered, that we are most in need of now.
You will be missed.
Dr. Pia Salk
PS: Please have a look at this wonderful video tribute to Baxter and his work.