Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stay Mark-Cuss Hilton from the swift completion of his appointed rounds.
But a global pandemic can make life a bit more challenging for even the most committed St. John Ambulance therapy dog, not to mention his human handler.
Since they were certified in the summer of 2018, Mark-Cuss, a five-year-old poodle/Shar-Pei/Labrador mix, and his two-legged partner, Donamae Hilton, have been bringing comfort and joy to lonely hospital patients and stressed-out students.
Every Thursday morning for the past two years, this dynamic duo has been a much-needed ray of sunshine for the elderly residents at Actionmarguerite, a 299-bed, bilingual long-term care seniors home on Rue Despins in St. Boniface.
But those weekly visits were brought to a grinding halt by the COVID-19 outbreak as the province suspended in-person visits at personal care homes to help prevent the spread of a virus that is claiming lives around the world.
Unwilling to abandon elderly friends, Hilton, 68, who happens to be this columnist’s sister-in-law, huddled with the seniors home’s therapists and came up with a high-tech solution — virtual therapy dog visits.
The way it works is Hilton and Mark-Cuss, from the comfort of home, use a smartphone video-chat app to contact the seniors’ facility, where therapists roam the centre with their phones, enabling elderly residents get up close and personal with a virtual version of their beloved therapy dog team.
The virtual visits — hour-long sessions on Tuesday and Thursday mornings — have been a much-needed silver lining for seniors who have been unable to enjoy in-person time with family members since the pandemic hit town.
"I went from resident to resident and showed them Mark-Cuss," explained Penny Seier, a therapeutic recreation facilitator at the facility who hatched the innovative plan in concert with Hilton. "It was like a regular real visit, but just through the phone.
"They (the residents) were just ecstatic. They could see Mark-Cuss and say ‘hi’ to Donamae. They were talking to him as if he were actually here. They were just enthralled with the fact they could still see Mark-Cuss for a visit."
During the hour-long virtual visit, Seier and Jean-Pierre Kisama, another recreational therapist, were able to connect the therapy dog team with about 30 residents on two floors of the care facility.
“They (the residents) were just ecstatic. They could see Mark–Cuss and say ‘hi’ to Donamae. They were talking to him as if he were actually here. They were just enthralled with the fact they could still see Mark–Cuss for a visit.”
"We’re going to try and do it twice a week — on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 am.," Seier said. "We’re hoping to go virtual with iPads next week."
It’s just one creative way of lifting seniors’ spirits in difficult times. "They really look forward to seeing Mark-Cuss, and Donamae has an exceptional heart. She gives pictures of Mark-Cuss to the residents. She really goes the extra mile."
For her part, Hilton, who retired in 2016 from her job as an administrative assistant with the Manitoba Dental Association, said her four-legged therapy partner was getting antsy after their regular visits to the care facility were grounded.
"Mark-Cuss has been missing going up there," explained Hilton, a passionate dog lover who also owns a grumpy basset-beagle cross named Norman. "He misses his people. He’s been playing outside and going for walks but he knows when it’s Thursday and he should be working."
While Mark-Cuss romped around this columnist’s dog-intensive home Wednesday evening, Hilton explained their first foray into virtual therapy was an emotional affair.
"The people were very happy to see him," she recalled, laughing as Mark-Cuss and this writer’s dogs frantically leaped on and off a couch. "There was lots of laughter and lots of smiles, and one gentleman was so glad to see him that he started to cry and that made me cry, too.
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"My heart felt full. It felt like, finally, I could do something to help. A lot of these people we’ve been seeing for the past two years don’t have many visitors, a lot are bedridden, so they know when it’s Thursday and time for Mark-Cuss to visit."
She said Mark-Cuss — who was rescued in 2016 after being on death row in a U.S. pound — and herself will continue doing their virtual visits until restrictions are eased and they can once again show up in the flesh, and fur.
"I think it’s a big success," Hilton gushed. "It gives the people joy because they can see Mark-Cuss and it gives him joy because he can hear their voices. The only bad thing is he’s missing out on all the treats they give him when when he’s there in person."
She’s hoping other therapy dog teams will follow their lead and start making virtual visits to facilities locked down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Doug Speirs Columnist
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
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