VIRGINIA – You may think you know about tomcats, but meet Tom the cat who seems to have a very special gift indeed.
He’s the appointed feline companion, counselor, and caretaker at Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia. It is there that he is revered as an animal who may sometimes know more about empathy “in the moment” than his humans who love him just for being “Tom.”
The lovefest goes both ways, as Tom returns affection in kind to the resident veterans of the hospital’s community living center which provides rehabilitation, hospice/palliative care and long-term skilled nursing.
“You can’t beat a good, purring, loving kitty cat,” Army veteran James Gearhart of Bassett, Virginia, explained to TODAY. He lived in the rehabilitation unit while being treated for throat cancer, and says he’s actually doing well after being recently discharged.
“Tom knows when someone is having a hard time. He laid on my bed a lot and I rubbed and scratched him the way cats like,” Gearhart stated. “One day I gave him some of my Ensure vanilla drink and he drank every bit of it. Then he rubbed on me and licked my hands.”
The hospital’s chief of extended care service, Dr. Blake Lipscomb, stated to TODAY that Tom stood by him one day when he had to officially pronounce a veteran dead.
“Tom looked up at me and meowed. He had been with the veteran and his family at a time that was hardest for them, doing exactly what we wanted him to do — to help make a more low-stress, ‘homelike’ environment.”
Back in 2012, Dottie Rizzo, who is the chief nurse in the hospital’s extended care service, along with physician assistant Laura Hart, read a book called “Making Rounds with Oscar,” by Dr. David Dosa, who is a geriatrician. In it, the doctor documents the story of a cat named Oscar who comforts dementia patients and appears to anticipate when they are about to die.
“We knew we needed a cat just like that,” Rizzo said to TODAY. “We enlisted the assistance of a local veterinarian’s office manager who went to a shelter and visited with the cats for a long time before deciding on Tom.”
Both the staff and the cat know well that not everyone likes cats — including patients, their families and yes, even hospital staff.
“We have a sign that says ‘No Cat Zone,’ which indicates to non-cat-lovers that Tom won’t be in that area,’ Hart said to TODAY.
“There are patients who say they don’t love him, but they do end up loving him anyway — they just don’t know it!” she said.
“Then there are families that say they’re ‘allergic,’” Rizzo stated. “Within a week, they’re bringing a treat for the cat! We have more than a thousand employees, and some come on their breaks to bring Tom food and just pet him. He recently ‘told off’ an overnight supervisor who forgot to bring his treats.”
She remembers, in particular, a terminal patient who had Parkinson’s disease who wasn’t able speak very well. “With Tom in his lap, it was less difficult for him to talk, because rubbing the cat calmed him down and relaxed his vocal cords,” she said.
Tom knows his turf very well and he’s very territorial, Hart added, and dogs aren’t exempt. One day a very large mastiff entered the hospital as part of the pet therapy program, and Tom jumped right onto the canine’s back. “After that, the dog refused to come back unless Tom was secured in his room,” she stated.
The insightful feline actually thinks he’s really a person, Hart stated.
“When we hold team meetings, we shut the door for privacy. He meows so much, we let him in. He also likes to ride on the service carts we use to make rounds.”
And because you’re wondering, yes, Tom does have a litter box and it’s always very clean, thanks to dedicated employees who wouldn’t have it any other way, she noted.
Rizzo shared the poignant story of one veteran’s daughter who “did not like cats.” She would even shut the door when Tom was around, even though her dad really liked him, she stated. “One day she stepped out of her father’s room for a few minutes and Tom went in,” stated Rizzo. “Then the cat came out and ‘went to get her,’ meowing at her until she returned to her father’s room. Minutes later her father died. The daughter was convinced Tom made sure she was with her father when he passed.”
Being so in tune and in touch with what some would call the supernatural or paranormal is not always easy for Tom.
“After he’s been with someone who died, he needs to be by himself for a while. It’s tough on us because everyone is always looking for him. We love him,” Hart stated.
When Sharon Herndon’s father died at the center, Tom filled a very special place in her family’s heart. The experience even motivated the Roanoke, Virginia, woman to write a book back in 2014, which she called “Tom the Angel Cat,” which is available on Amazon. In the book, she wrote that “Tom is the final salute to a job well done.”