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As hospice volunteers, Meryl Ruth and her Chihuahua Bridget bring comfort to the dying

Meryl Ruth of Cumberland has found a unique calling in life. She’s a volunteer with Hospice of Southern Maine.

Ruth, 65, says she discovered her comfort and lack of fear in dealing with death when she helped her sister, Lynn Friedman, struggle through and eventually succumb to breast cancer nine years ago at age 58.

The sisters had been estranged for many years when Lynn got the diagnosis, and she felt very alone. The two sisters managed to “beautifully reconnect” in the last five years of Lynn’s life, and that’s something Ruth says she’ll be grateful for forever.

“When Lynn got the diagnosis, I told her I would walk with her as far as we could go together,” says Ruth. “I committed myself to whatever she needed…Sometimes she’d say, ‘you talk, tell me stuff, I wanna hear normal,’ and sometimes she would want to talk and get her anger out.”

“The way I handled things with her, how I was doing this, worked for her. And that’s the first time I realized I might possess something that could assist with the dying, that maybe I had a sensitivity and could give to the world in this way to honor my sister.”

Daryl J. Cady, CEO of Gosnell House visits with hospice volunteer Meryl Ruth and her therapy dog Bridget at Gosnell House in Scarborough. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

When another close friend, Ted White, was dying of brain cancer three and a half years ago, she again realized she was comfortable talking about death in a way that others weren’t.

“I talked with Ted with no euphemisms. We just spoke frankly about death. I took my cues from him, and he wasn’t afraid. He just wanted to be sure that Kathy, his wife, would be taken care of, and then he’d be OK.”

As her friend was dying at Gosnell House in Scarborough, Ruth says she so taken with how the facility handled things, “with such an honoring of the dying, with such grace and dignity.”

She had been retired for a couple of years at that point, after being an art teacher for 28 years, and though working full-time as a ceramics and fiber artist, she missed the sense of community she’d felt at school. She felt those connections again at Gosnell House in such a profound way that she was moved to go through the extensive training with Hospice of Southern Maine so that she could volunteer there.

“Ted and my sister were the catalyst for my starting to do this kind of work,” says Ruth, noting that volunteering at Hospice of Southern Maine was immediately satisfying, no matter what work she was assigned.

But the experience became even more meaningful and gratifying when she got involved with Hospice’s PawPrints program, which brings trained dogs into Gosnell House to comfort patients and their loved ones.

Ruth and her husband Fred Wolff have three Chihuahuas, one of whom—six-pound Bridget—“is this very chill, all-love creature.”

“The dogs are really receptive to human touch, and they let people relax and smile. And that shifts the focus away from emotional and physical pain.”

“She is the most loving animal in the world,” says Ruth. “We rescued her, and there seems to be something about her that just wants to give back. I just knew that Bridget was supposed to be involved in this program. And she’s been phenomenal!”

Ruth says that her dog has the ability to immediately change the mood from grief-filled and sad to happy—to “bringing a teenie bit of joy in.”

Heather Francis, Hospice of Southern Maine’s volunteer coordinator, says Bridget and other dogs in the program “provide a distraction and make a very meaningful impression on patients and their families.”

Plus, she says, the staff is enthusiastic about the program, and that translates to better service, too.

John and therapy dog Bridget get acquainted at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough. Meryl Ruth, Bridget’s owner who is also a hospice volunteer, marvels at Bridget’s ability to draw people in around her and provide comfort. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“People really look forward to the dogs being there, and we get the best feedback from families,” Francis says. “They don’t expect to be able to snuggle with a dog in these circumstances. The six dogs in the program are in a rotation, and there’s one dog here a day. The dogs are really receptive to human touch, and they let people relax and smile. And that shifts the focus away from emotional and physical pain.”

Francis says Ruth and Bridget are a winning combination at Gosnell House.

“Meryl is an incredibly good listener. She has the unique ability to draw out people’s personalities and stories, and people love Bridget. We really benefit from having both of them here.”

Rose Mary Muir of Portland is an eight-year volunteer with Hospice of Southern Maine, and her mother stayed at Gosnell House before dying in March 2017. Muir considers the PawPrints program one of the many extras that make Gosnell House such a special place.

“It’s remarkable to see the effect a dog can have,” she agrees. “It can really mean a lot and it’s wonderful.”

Muir says her mother did not spend time with Bridget but had an amazing experience because of her encounter with another therapy dog shortly after being admitted.

John and therapy dog Bridget Bridget get acquainted at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough. Photo by Lauryn Hottinger

“Maya is a sheltie, and that’s the same breed of the only dog my Mom ever had in her whole life, and she looks just like Mom’s dog, Rooney. Maya’s owner stopped me in the hall to ask if it was OK if they came in. Maya jumped up on the bed and put her head on my mother’s knee, and my Mom was so calmed and comforted. What are the chances that it would be a sheltie! The dog was unfamiliar but very familiar at the same time. What it did was just take my Mom away from everything that was happening for a little bit, and there was just total peace and contentment on my mother’s face.”

As for Bridget, Muir says the little Chihuahua has the “perfect temperament” for her role. “She’s very calm, which is a little unusual for her breed, I think. She’s very sweet.”

Ruth marvels at Bridget’s ability to make instant friends, draw people in around her and provide comfort. And her owner has noticed another amazing phenomenon: Patients and family members soften when holding and petting the teenie dog, often spilling emotions in a way that they won’t when talking one on one with just another human.

“Bridget has been a real star, and she loves being there,” says Ruth. “She takes her job very seriously! The energy in a room just changes when she’s there providing a few minutes of cheer and happiness.”

Patricia McCarthy is a long-time writer and editor. She has three daughters, lives in Cape Elizabeth and also has a photography business (patriciamccarthy.com).

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