He drove on a busy highway with his dog faithfully sitting beside him on the passenger seat.
The next moment, he awoke in Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, confused and missing his four-legged companion.
Police had noticed him swerving, sounded their sirens and pulled him over. They quickly realized he needed medical attention. An ambulance rushed him to the hospital. Doctors discovered he suffered from stage 4 lung cancer and a brain tumor. Clinicians concluded that prior chemotherapy and radiation treatments caused dementia that resulted in his reckless driving.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, he often referred to “Rasta.” His care team soon realized that their patient had not been alone in his truck that fateful day. His dog – his best friend – traveled with him, too.
The admitting nurse called the police who indicated that the dog had been sent to an area animal shelter and was days away from being euthanized. Jean Merrill, one of the patient’s nurses on Presbyterian’s neuroscience floor, learned during a department meeting of the patient’s desire to find his dog.
“Everyone on our unit agreed that we couldn’t let this dog die,” explained Jean.
Rasta was the patient’s only family; his wife and daughter died in a car accident years earlier. Soon after, he rescued Rasta, a black-and-white Border Collie puppy abused by previous owners, from a local shelter. Throughout the last nine years, the two were inseparable. Named after Rastafarian music for her laid-back personality, the dog accompanied him everywhere. Now they were apart and he was miserable without his companion.
“My co-workers would’ve adopted Rasta but they already had pets or lived in apartments,” Jean explained.
She recounted the situation to her husband, who said, “Well, how can we not take the dog?”
The next day, Jean visited the animal shelter. “Rasta whined, jumped and came right over to me,” Jean recalled. “I couldn’t wait to get her home. She was just wonderful.”
She added, “I think that, through Rasta, I was able to feel for the patient.” Jean took Rasta to the vet for a check-up and to a dog boutique for grooming and pampering. Then Jean visited the patient and shared the good news.
“He was relieved and thanked me,” said Jean, who assured him he would see his dog. Hospital staff worried that reuniting him with Rasta could be too much. They waited until he was strong enough.
“If I think about the reunion, I will cry,” said Jean. “When we brought Rasta into the room, the patient looked at her and said ‘Rasta’ and embraced her.”
They left the patient alone with Rasta for nearly two hours. Then staff threw the patient a party, complete with brownies and cookies. The patient worried he’d never see Rasta again. Jean reassured him that many visits would follow and arranged regular visits, even after the patient moved into a nursing home.
Though Jean is Rasta’s primary caregiver, a team of hospital staff adopted the patient. He became everyone’s patient. “It was absolutely a team effort,” explained Jean.
Jean hopes the patient soon can sit with Rasta on the porch at her home in the country. His cancer is incurable and she knows he cannot live alone with Rasta ever again. Jean just wants to make his remaining days meaningful.
“He got confused driving around one day, then suddenly lost his freedom,” reflected Jean. “Now we have given him hope.”