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Lin Sue and the Power of the Paw

Monday, April 8, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Andrea Tyler Evans
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Hospice of the Valley knows that pets are good medicine

The hair. The smile. The voice. They’re all there, same as you remember.

But instead of the news desk at KPNX 12, where she served as an anchor for 31 years, Lin Sue Cooney sits behind a table at Hospice of the Valley, warmly talking about her dog.

“I’ve noticed he does this thing where he walks in and smells the breath of the person. I think he can smell sickness,” she said.

Cooney and Max, a standard poodle, are one of 75 therapy teams in Hospice of the Valley’s pet therapy program, which brings furry friends to patients in their homes, in Palliative Care Units and in other care facilities.

“Pets are such a gift — a burst of sunshine,” Cooney said. Studies show that therapy pets bring comfort and reduce feelings of depression and isolation. They can ease anxiety, take a patient’s mind off of pain, and spur communication, including sharing memories of their own pets.

Last year, Hospice of the Valley pet-therapy teams provided 3,250 hours of service. With each stroke of their coats, these dogs, cats, bunnies — even a miniature horse – helped hospice patients and their families momentarily forget about illness, or at least make it a little easier.

“The miniature horse is Lily. She has a tutu and little tennis shoes that she wears if she needs to go where floors might be delicate or she might slip. She’s a big favorite,” Cooney said.

Cooney’s association with Hospice of the Valley goes back years. A family member had been cared for by the organization in 2003 and she was blown away. Cooney emceed a couple of events and did stories about the organization being a nonprofit that turns no one away. She always had a soft spot for them, she says.

So when the time came for her to sign — or not sign — a four-year contract renewal at Channel 12 at the same time her sons were entering high school, she took a breath and looked around. “I realized I was ready for a transition. It was a different season, and I was ready for an encore career devoted to making the world a better place,” Cooney said.

She spoke with the then-executive director of Hospice of the Valley, who had an unexpected idea: Join them. “She said, ‘We don’t need clinical. We need somebody who has community ties, who can educate, inform and present all the things we do and all the things we are.”

Cooney felt that call to serve. “This society is afraid of dying,” she said. “We don’t treat death like we treat birth, which is reverent and beautiful. We don’t plan for it. So it happens in the back of an ambulance, on the way to a hospital, or in an emergency room because we’re not thinking ahead. How do I want that moment to look? Where do I want to be?”

Cooney accepted the role of director of community engagement and now works to teach the public about what hospice is, and just as importantly, what it is not. “People think you go on hospice to die, and that’s the exact opposite of what we are,” Cooney said. “We want you to live every moment you have left. So it’s like, ‘What’s on your bucket list? What joy can we pack in?’ That’s how we see it.”

To learn what the organization does on a granular level, Cooney steeped herself in hospice work. She went with chaplains and read scripture to patients. She helped bathe them and went with social workers to listen and sympathize. Along the way, the former journalist found her new life’s mission.

“I feel like I get to get up every morning and serve. I feel so grateful for that, because people sometimes spend their whole lives trying to figure out what their purpose is,” she said.

Because Cooney was a fixture on the airways, coming into people’s homes for so many years, they often feel they know her and can trust when she explains how hospice works. And many are thrilled and surprised when she conducts pet-therapy visits herself, along with her beloved Max.

Cooney has a special relationship with Max, who will turn 11 in July. An elegant, energetic dog, he moves with a light, springy gait as he romps around Cooney’s backyard. At the same time, he is a “thinking” dog who pays close attention to Cooney’s command. On hospice visits, he is calm and easy-going, like all therapy pets must be.

“He immediately matches how they are,” Cooney said. “If there’s laughter, his tail moves and he gets closer. If they’re very still and they don’t move, he’ll just sniff their hand or put his nose under their hand. He’s really intuitive.”

So much so that Cooney swears he knows the work he’s about to embark on when she takes out his blue pet-therapy vest. And after a couple of hours visiting hospice patients, caretakers and staff, he returns home as tired as if he’d run 10 miles. “I feel a little glow in my heart when I see how pooped he is afterward,” Cooney said. “I think, ‘Oh gosh, I wore you out, but you did a good thing today.’”

Patients and families agree. Some need their spirits lifted by the warmth and laughter pets bring; others need the comforting power of physical contact. Either way, these furry visitors serve as nonjudgmental listener and quiet friend. They sit calmly and let patients and their families recollect and smile.

“I feel very relaxed when I have her here,” said Vicki, a hospice patient, about Callie, an adorable Hospice of the Valley therapy dog. “She shares my feelings — she really does. I pet her and it makes me feel good.”

For Cooney and the care teams at Hospice of the Valley, this is music to their ears. Making end-of-life patients feel good and helping them to embrace the last chapter of their lives is precisely why they serve.

“It’s been such a joy to do something that is so needed, valuable and important to every single person,” Cooney said. That’s why, after reporting the Valley’s diverse stories for three decades, Cooney’s mission is now to tell one: Hospice of the Valley’s.

The shift has put everything else into perspective. “Somebody cuts you off on the freeway. Your roof has a flood. I’m like, who cares? It is not stage 4 cancer,” Cooney said.
The change has also affected how Cooney sees Max. “I see a wise empathy in him,” she said. “When you see him with people who are so weak and happy to see him and he’s so patient — like, more patient than a person would be — I do see him in a different light.”

Cooney is leaning across the table in her sunny Hospice of the Valley office, beaming with pride as she talks about Max, the other pet-therapy teams, and Hospice of the Valley’s people, programs and plans. As much as she may have enjoyed the limelight that accompanied life in television, she isn’t missing her old gig in the slightest.

“To have a career, a calling, a mission — that’s the definition of what I do. I come to work and I’m serving others, and it’s a dream come true,” Cooney said.

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