Colorado State Veterinary Hospital graduate students provide animal hospice care

When two veterinary medicine students rang the Bedard family’s doorbell ,two black labradors greeted them — one barking with a greying face, the other with slick black fur and a calm, curious disposition.

The silent dog is the reason that graduate students Jeret Benson and Sarah Eck were there in the first place.

Eight-year-old Jojo was diagnosed with osteosarcoma three years ago when the family decided to have her left hind leg amputated. She received chemotherapy at CSU’s veterinary hospital and has since enjoyed a very active lifestyle.

“She’s a miracle dog,” said Jill Bedard, Jojo’s owner. “The vets predicted that she would only last for one more year and she’s on three years now.”

However, things started to go downhill this July, when the family veterinarian discovered that Jojo’s cancer had come back. That’s where Benson and Eck come in to the picture.

Both students are volunteers with the CSU Pet Hospice Program. It was initiated in 2003 with the goal of providing care for pets and their owners during the end of life decision-making process. According to faculty advisor Gail Bishop, the program is the first and only to use student volunteers. There are currently 25 students involved, with each member expected to handle four different cases a year.

The Hospice was founded by the Argus Institute, a counseling service that offers support to families and their pets while also teaching veterinary students the proper communication skill needed to interact with owners and their animals.

Benson, who joined the program last fall, helped to train Hospice volunteers to effectively communicate with families.

“We act as liaisons between the families and their veterinarians,” she said. “We teach students effective communication skills that help them empathize with the families.”

Magen Shaughnessy, the former team manager for the Hospice program, further emphasized the need for good communication skills.

“We talk to families about all the specifics of the disease as well as help them put a plan into place,” she said. “It lets them feel they have more control.”

Shaughnessy recounted one of her visits where she included the family’s 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter in a discussion about euthanasia. She asked both kids what they knew about the process.

“It turns out they already knew quite a bit,” she said.

She then went on to explain the process in medical terms to reassure the kids that their dog would not feel any pain. Shaughnessy “facilitated a conversation” between the parents and the kids about all the other factors they needed to discuss if they were to go through with the procedure.

“I wanted them to think about all the choices they have,” she said. “For instance, I told them that it’s okay to undergo euthanasia on one of the dog’s good days.”

In terms of ‘good days,’ many Hospice workers have families track their pet’s health on a calendar that records the animal’s behavior. For Jojo, daughters Kelcey and Baylee Bedard use a mental calendar to track their dog’s signs of good health. Yesterday, they noticed signs of Jojo being her old self.

“She was eating, chasing her ball and snapping at flies,” Kelcey Bedard said.

Jill noted that she also ate three meals, something that she had had troubling doing in the past.

The Hospice volunteers sat down on the Bedard’s living room floor as they listened to the family describe Jojo’s demeanor since their last visit a week ago. Benson and Eck checked the dog’s gums, temperature and even worked together to make her ingest a pill to aid with her upset stomach. As the volunteers attended to Jojo, the family expressed their thankfulness for their help.

“It’s reassuring that they’re here,” Baylee Bedard said. “They’re doing everything they can for Jojo, they answer our questions — it’s like they’re almost family.”

Jill Bedard called the volunteers a “blessing” for supporting Jojo and the family. She noted that they gave her options that she had never known about, too.

Benson knelt down and hand-fed Jojo — her first real meal of the day. When she had finished an entire can of food, Jojo laid down and rolled on to her side. She started to close her eyes, as if to indicate that she felt content and protected with the people around her.

Collegian writer Sean Meeds can be reached at news@collegian.com.