A wounded pup keeps doing her job: Healing people

When Olivia Mae, a 22-month-old, 10-pound, Havanese therapy dog, glides through the hospice in her doggie stroller, staff members bend down to stroke her curly fur and grin into her brown eyes. Patients and family members at the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Philadelphia’s inpatient hospice on Henry Avenue shower her with baby talk and, if Olivia’s owner, chaplain Donna Geiger, lets them, tiny bits of cheese.

Lately, Olivia has been a bit under the weather herself, but Geiger said Olivia’s injury — she broke a foot in three places when she fell off a bed in August — has only made the dog better at her work. Her job, Geiger said, is “helping people smile” in a place where smiles are precious. Her cast and stroller have made conversations about illness richer and given people a distraction from the grief and fear in their lives.

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Chaplain Donna Geiger (left) holds onto Olivia Mae, therapy dog, while she holds the hand of Rita Wilson, a patient at the Hospice of Philadelphia, a division of the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Philadelphia, as they pray together. 

“For that short period of time, they’re thinking about something different than their loved one being in hospice,” Geiger said.

She met her pet and coworker — Olivia has her own volunteer badge — when she was an eight-week-old, 2½-pound, $2,000 puppy in Florida. After much research, Geiger, whose last dog weighed 135 pounds, decided that a Havanese would be the perfect addition to her ministry. The American Kennel Club calls the breed, developed in Cuba, outgoing, smart, and eager to please.

Geiger had to prove to the breeder that she would be a worthy owner. Olivia has had months of training to be a therapy dog, meeting nine out of 10 standards for certification. The sticking point: conquering separation anxiety. It’s possible that Geiger, who clearly dotes on the dog and her “agape love,” may have some separation anxiety herself.

Olivia visits patients and staff at the inpatient facility and in homes two days a week. Ultimately, she may do three, Geiger said. The two sit beside a patient or family member while people talk about faith, dogs they’ve loved, what makes them feel good in tough times (often dogs) and whatever else comes to mind.  Olivia doesn’t have to do much besides love a lot of strangers eager for a soft touch. She’s a natural.

On a recent afternoon, Geiger took Olivia to see Robert Redding and his wife, Lenora Skinner. Redding’s sister, who has leukemia, was asleep, and the couple looked glum when Geiger arrived. They laughed as they talked about the dog.

“I do hope that she helped to lighten your heart a little bit,” Geiger said as she stood to leave.

“She did,” Skinner said. “She is just so beautiful.”

They also saw Rita Wilson, who was at the hospice for respite care while her husband was in the hospital.  She is 70, with multiple health problems, and has outlived her doctors’ predictions. “God is using me to set a record,” she said. “Nobody can tell you when you’re going to leave here but the Lord.”

Wilson seemed the kind of person who lights up easily, and she beamed as Olivia sat next to her and accepted treats. She sang Olivia a hymn. “I know that the Lord, he’ll take care of me” she sang in a strong voice for someone on oxygen. “How about that?” she said afterward with a hearty laugh. She and Geiger sang “How Great Thou Art.” Wilson remembered how a dog she’d once owned howled along when she sang. She and Geiger clasped hands and prayed.

Wilson said she hadn’t been this close to a dog in years. She thanked Geiger for bringing Olivia, and they talked about getting together again. “I haven’t petted a dog in so long,” she said. “That was just precious. That’s a precious visit.”

Camera icon MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Chaplain Donna Geiger wheels Olivia Mae, her small therapy dog, into a patient’s room at the Visiting Nurses Hospice.