I was scheduled to meet Baxter Bussey, the world’s oldest therapy dog who at 19 years strong was still working amidst his advanced age and arthritic pain twice to three times weekly at the San Diego Hospice and Institute for Pallative Medicine. That meeting never happened as Baxter died the week prior to our rendezvous.
Luckily, though, I was able to still encounter him via his emotive YouTube video (watch below), which pretty much tells Baxter’s powerful story and shows his amazing gift in a snapshot.
I’m not sure why I was so stunned by this video, but I was, as were about 400,000 others who saw it, encountering something rarely seen: the very old comforting the near dead.
As an end-of-life therapy dog doing highly sensitive and compassionate end-of life work, Baxter’s job was to comfort those who lay dying and in pain while giving intimate aid to those on their transition from life to death, sometimes in their very last hours.
For the patients on the hospice ward, Baxter, a golden retriever/chow mix, became a mobile furry emergency unit, entering in and out of damaged lives with near-flamboyant grace and mercy to provide whatever healing he could.
Lest anyone think therapy dogs are merely the newest addition to American’s love affair with their companion animals, let us consider who among us could consistently do this wrenching work? I, for one, despite a desiring heart, could not.
This, though, is where Baxter’s immense soul triumphed, says his owner, Melissa Joseph, who each week wheeled Baxter into the hospice unit in his red covered wagon filled with stuffed pillows — his favorite being an oversized blue-and-white bone-shaped number with the title: Old Soul.
Joseph, who rescued Baxter when he was 2 from an abusive environment, says one of his most therapeutic tools were his oversized eyes that looked as if they were ringed with blurry-black eyeliner tattoo. He’d stare directly into patients’ eyes with these huge soulful orbs, and pain and time would relax their grip, says Joseph.
“He’d go eye to eye — it was one of his favorite things to do — and I dare anyone not to melt. He had such a very beautiful and intense gaze,” she recalls. His huge bear paws and real-life teddy bear ears ["I'd always tell people his ears were big because as an angel they helped him fly"] made him both irresistible and potent medicine.
As a key member of the hospice’s Pawsitive Pals Pet Therapy Program team for seven years, Baxter licked the faces and feet of dying children, men, women and the elderly. He wore silly ad hoc cone hats to celebrate the lonely on their birthdays and allowed thin arms to envelope him for hours.
You can read about 36 patients who received the Baxter treatment in Joseph’s book, “Moments with Baxter.” All proceeds from the sale of the book, as well as the sale of a sweet stuffed Baxter animal, will go to various animal rescue charities. For more information, visit www.momentswithbaxter.com.
One of the things that allow dying patients to open up so quickly and readily to a skilled therapy animal like Baxter, “is likely because they don’t have to talk or worry about interacting; they just get to be there with the comfort,” says Joseph, who was a critical part of team Baxter.
She and Baxter worked on all holidays, which can be especially emotionally draining and tough. “Maybe they were struggling thinking about saying good-bye to their loved ones, and all the things in their life, but Baxter didn’t require anything of anyone. He just gave unconditional presence and love and softness,” explains Joseph. “He just instinctively and amazingly always knew exactly what to do and who needed what.”
One patient Joseph remembers well, a 36 year-old woman she and Baxter had visited for about a year. The last time they ever saw her she was being transported by ambulance to go home and die. Joseph says she overheard one of the ambulance drivers asking where room 207 was and knew he was asking about this young woman. She asked if she could place Baxter on the gurney to surprise this patient and bring her some joy.
“He struggled with saying yes and really never did,” says Joseph. “I just put Baxter on top (of it) and all of a sudden away we went.” The hospice staff present that day remember seeing Baxter and this dying woman together on the gurney, rolling around the beautiful hospice grounds. She died soon after.
The medical staff who worked with Baxter clearly loved and admired him. “If I had just one word to describe Baxter it’d be ‘sage,’ says Dr. Shannon Moore, an oncologist at the institute. “It’s not a word you use about many beings, but it was true about Baxter.”
Lisa McCollough, the Hospice’s chaplain thought Baxter “a rare dignified soul. He just had this immense dignity and spiritual-like presence.” She adds, “And he was very free with his licks.”
Rodney Swan, the hospice’s pharmaceutical aroma-therapist noticed how Baxter seemed to sense the value of a good photo op and “when there were cameras around, he’d give a quick turn and almost smile at the cameras, and then immediately he’d go back to why he was really there. He never let it interfere with his important work.”
One veteran hospice night nurse simply labeled Baxter “the guru of therapy dogs.”
More than a hundred people — standing room only including doctors, nurses, patients, family members, and fans — said a formal goodbye to this amazing animal on October 21, 2009, at a memorial put on by the hospice.
I’d never before been to a memorial service for a dog, and I can tell you there was, as they say, few dry eyes in the house.
As was mentioned at the service, Baxter was able to do his most honorable work because Joseph and her husband Dennis Bussey took rare care of their dog: Towards the end of his life Baxter received twice daily acupuncture treatments, massages and swam therapeutically two to three times a week.
Joseph says it helped with Baxter’s sometimes gnawing arthritic pain. “But I really do believe his suffering often overshadowed their [patient's] own, if for just that brief moment in time. And helped them focus their compassion on Baxter as he was focusing his on them.”
Ultimately, Baxter’s story speaks to me some important lessons about what the face of death and the end-of-life journey can be, and the knowledge that there is comfort for it from some very unlikely places — like the sweet licking tongue of a gifted healing therapy dog.
R.I.P Baxter. You did noble work.
Janet Kinosian is a 25-year print journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, The New York Times Syndicate , Reader’s Digest and People Magazine. This article first appeared in the L.A. Times blog “ L.A. Unleashed.” Image via Baxieboo’s Weblog.