Even though he only reaches to a person’s knees, Nova fills a room when he enters.
The dalmatian, along with his best friend, Jim Washington, brings smiles to the faces of long-term residents at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre and patients at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital as well as their families and staff.
“Nova was a show dog, so he has a calm, quiet personality,” says Jim. “I did a little pet therapy many years ago, but I was still working and couldn’t find the time to continue. I got Nova when I retired and started doing it again.”
Jim and Nova are part of the Pet Therapy Society of Northern Alberta. They have been doing pet therapy at the Grey Nuns hospital since 2016, but they had to pause after Jim was injured.
On April 8, 2021, Jim was walking his two dogs in some tall grass around a pond when something caught their attention. Their sharp pull on the leashes led him to fall and tear the patella tendons of both his knees. His injuries required more than 10 weeks of care, including four weeks at the Edmonton General.
“When I was at the Edmonton General, I was helpless,” says Jim. “Everyone — nurses, support staff and physiotherapists — took great care of me.”
That excellent care prompted a desire to give back.
“While I was still in a wheelchair at the Edmonton General, I knocked on the door of Volunteer Services and said I wanted to come back and volunteer here,” says Jim. “It took me a while, but I’m back!”
Jim says he’s still a “work in progress” but is about 85 per cent back to normal. Stairs are still his nemesis.
Jim and Nova’s visits mean a lot to residents at the Edmonton General.
“Nova is quite beautiful,” says Anne Cooksey, a resident at the Edmonton General. “I had Hungarian vizslas. They’re about the size of Nova. They’re beautiful dogs.”
In preparation for her first visit with Jim and Nova, Anne painted a couple of pictures for them.
“I’m glad to meet you,” Anne said to Nova when she met the friendly dog. “You made my day!”
Anne explained that the visit with Jim and Nova allowed her to shift attention away from her aches and pains because she put all of her attention on Nova. “Seeing and petting a dog make you forget all of your ailments. It’s also delightful to have interactions with something from the outside world.”
She joked that Nova had her full attention, but she just saw Jim’s feet. Jim says he’s used to being in the background when he and Nova do pet therapy.
“Jim and Nova’s visits mean a lot to our unit, especially our residents,” says Micah Ruado, a recreation assistant on unit 10Y at the Edmonton General. “What’s amazing is their effect on my residents who are living with dementia. Their visits help ease residents’ stress levels as well tackling residents’ isolation and depression. Seeing Nova and Jim allows residents to have a conversation with someone different, and they often recall some beautiful memories from their childhood, especially about pets they had.”
Micah says petting Nova is soothing and comforting.
“It’s a ray of sunshine every time Jim and Nova come onto the unit,” says Micah. “We’re privileged to have them visit us. They’re therapeutic for everyone who sees them.”
Not everyone wants to interact with Nova, and Jim respects each person's wishes.
The pair continue to go to the Grey Nuns hospital, but they stay within the lobby due to COVID-19 restrictions. Before the pandemic, they visited different areas, including the palliative care unit. Staff also appreciate a visit with a four-legged visitor.
“Spending time with Nova gives a measure of comfort,” says Daphne Lau, a lab technologist at the Grey Nuns hospital. “It takes you away from the moment and helps you relax.”
Jim and Nova’s visits to the sites are typically about an hour long. Nova is getting older. He’s 10 and tires more easily.
“Visiting at the Grey Nuns and Edmonton General is quite different,” says Jim, “The wards are obviously different.”
And it’s not just those they visit who benefit. Nova loves the attention from new friends, and Jim says he enjoys the conversations.
“We get to meet a lot of interesting people, and they all have dog stories. I find doing this very fulfilling.”
Micah hopes other people with pet therapy dogs will volunteer at the Edmonton General and other Covenant sites because their visits are such a mood lifter for so many.