A Time To Comfort
By Gerry Ashley

“To Everything There Is A Season: A time to be born and a time to die...”
(The Book of Ecclesiastes)                

SAN DIEGO, CA - Dying is never an easy topic to write about. I imagine it is even harder to acknowledge the process as the patient. Yet, it remains a part of the life cycle in which we all eventually participate. The best we can hope for is a transition that is as pain-free as possible, hopefully with family and loved ones gathered and after having lived a fruitful life.  

In the past, this was done at home, with the family surrounding the person who is about to complete the journey. Today, however, that is not always possible for a number of reasons. This has resulted in hospice centers where the sick and those with terminal illnesses have the constant care available that otherwise might not be possible at home. But the one intangible medicine no hospice center can provide on its own is the comfort and joy provided by a simple visit from friends or family. 

Hopefully, friends and family members fill that void on a regular basis. However, for some, there is no one nearby, making the final journey a lonely one for the patient. This is where the level of commitment by the hospice makes all the difference in the world.  

Fortunately for residents of San Diego, they have a hospice that understands the importance of that intangible medicine, and has programs in place to fill that need: San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care. The organization understands the critical balance between treatment and social contact.  The main campus is located at 4311 Third Ave (overlooking Mission Valley) and includes the only hospice-hospital in California. The organization provides care to more than 800 patients each day throughout the entire county, in the patient's home or wherever they reside.  Their mission statement sums it up perfectly: “To prevent and relieve suffering and promote quality of life, at every stage of life, through patient and family care, education, research and advocacy.” 

The hospice, which founded the county’s first hospice programs in 1977, has an assortment of volunteers who visit those without family nearby. Most of the volunteers are human, but the hospice is also well aware of the value of pet therapy. One such volunteer who visits on a regular basis is San Diego’s own Bandit The Biker Dog.  

“The San Diego Hospice was there for my Grandfather before he passed away,” said Bandit’s owner, Mark Shaffer with a hint of melancholy in his voice. “They were wonderful!”  

Shaffer, a kind-hearted person who knows the joy of giving, wanted to find some way to show his appreciation.  A chance meeting with hospice volunteer coordinator Stacy Green provided the answer he was looking for.

”I found out about the pet therapy program there and knew instantly that Bandit could make a huge difference in the lives of a number of the patients,” Shaffer says. “I enrolled Bandit in the certification program and he passed with flying colors. His graduation was a very proud moment for me.”  

Green accepted Mark and Bandit as volunteers and the pair are now regular visitors to the hospice. 

Shaffer explains: “At first, I wanted to go as my way of saying “thank you” to the hospice which took such good care of my grandfather. And it was very satisfying watching how much Bandit’s visits meant to the patients there. But I quickly realized how much it meant to me also. It really is an emotional experience at first, but then you discover the great feeling in bringing a little bit of joy to those who really need it.” 

“Bandit and I go to lots of different events and fundraisers, and I love seeing people laugh and want to pose for pictures with Bandit. But the folks at the hospice center really need all the smiles and laughter possible to help get them through this hardest time in their lives. It means a lot to me to be able to provide some of those moments, and I’m so proud of Bandit for the way he embraces it also. He’s such a natural comforter.”  

Asked what a typical visit is like, Shaffer replies, “I usually check with one of the nurses on duty to find out which patient would like a visitor. After the nurse Okays it with the patient, I usually stand in the hall and have Bandit ride his little Harley into the room ahead of me so the patient and any visitors just see a dog on a motorcycle riding into the room. That usually puts an instant smile on their faces and a chuckle in their voices. 

Shaffer stops for a moment. You can sense the emotion rising to the surface as he, perhaps, recalls his grandfather’s own journey (which was aided by visiting nurses who provided home care), maybe wishing Bandit had been around to entertain him as well. Then suddenly, a smile returns to his face.

“You know,” he continues, “It’s not only the patients who benefit. The friends and family members who are there visiting them also enjoy Bandit’s presence. I think it helps them to take their minds away from what is a solemn visit and, if just for a few minutes, turns it into a family get-together. And I think they really appreciate that.”  

“Sometimes I’ll just step back and observe the moment. It’s very fulfilling as I watch their faces turn to smiles. Suddenly, a room that was filled with sadness and gloom rings with laughter as their visit with Bandit eventually turns to talk about a pet they once shared. When that happens, I know we’ve done our job and it’s time for Bandit and me to move on to the next patient waiting for something to bring a smile to his or her face.” 

A typical visit to the hospice lasts about two hours, depending on how many patients they visit. Shaffer: “Then, I have Bandit ride out of the hospice on his bike, to the parking lot. After I put Bandit’s bike on the tailor, we hop onto my full dresser Harley and head home.”   

Shaffer points out that the benefit of Bandit’s visit isn’t always limited to the hospice itself. “One afternoon a lady was walking back to her car after having visited someone at the hospice. She was crying and very upset. She saw Bandit riding his Harley up the sidewalk to the entrance of the hospice. As we passed each other, she laughed and said, ‘Thank you! I really needed that!’ That’s the kind of thing that makes me know we’re doing the right thing. And although they are always thanking me for bringing Bandit, I would like to take this opportunity to say ‘Thank You’ to the hospice for all the great work they do… and for allowing Bandit and me the opportunity to be part of their animal therapy program.” 

For more information about San Diego Hospice & Palliative Care, click here:  www.sdhospice.org