Somewhere inside the intensive care unit at Mount Carmel Grove City in Grove City, Ohio, on one recent morning, Morgan Sheehan and Holly Riegel stood beside a bed and helped the patient lying in front of them FaceTime with family one last time before the person would be intubated and lose the ability to communicate, at least for now.
It was a moment that is repeated over and over and over in these days of COVID-19, one that never gets any easier.
But as soon as Sheehan, unit coordinator for the ICU, and Riegel, a multi-skilled patient technician, stepped from the room, they headed right into a breakroom to see Gracie, a 70-pound labradoodle who makes her rounds to visit the exhausted and emotionally-wrecked hospital staff a couple of times each week.
Sheehan dropped down to her knees and buried her face in Gracie's black and white floof on that morning last week.
"There's my girl," Sheehan cooed as she rubbed the dog's floppy ears. "She's the best girl. Gracie always seems to appear on the hardest days."
Watching from nearby was Denise Minor, Mount Carmel Health System's vice president of patient care services and its chief nursing officer. She is also Gracie's human.
Giving COVID-stressed nurses unconditional love
Minor decided more than a year ago to put her dog through training as a therapy/comfort dog. With COVID-19 protocols and restrictions at various pet places, it took longer than expected, but she wasn't giving up. This was personal to her.
Four years ago in February, she and her siblings lost their father to suicide, and her perspective changed.
"You never really know what somebody is going through," Minor said. "Even if you think you do know."
Through her ensuing grief, she saw her sister, Anita Rogers, making a difference with her own golden doodle, Charlie, who is a trained therapy dog Rogers uses for her work as a high school guidance counselor in Ross County.
So once Gracie passed her training and the pandemic surged again this fall, Minor knew what she had to do.
She brings Gracie -- whose own hospital administration ID badge declares her "Chief Therapy Officer" -- to work a couple of times each week. Most of the time, the dog lounges in the office. But for about an hour each day, she makes the rounds, stopping by the nurses' stations to get pets, squeezes and treats and to give licks and unconditional love.
The few minutes of comfort became even more critical last month as Ohio hospitals saw their highest COVID-patient numbers since the pandemic began.
"It's been such an emotional strain because every patient is so sick," Minor said. "This is why I bring Gracie. To just be present."
'For just one second, we got to decompress'
Sheehan said it might be difficult for others to understand how just a couple of minutes with a pet would possibly counter the chaos of an ICU unit during the pandemic. But she and Riegel need no convincing. Their proof comes on days such as a morning not so long ago when Minor brought Gracie around after two patients had already died and it wasn't even 9:30 a.m.
"For just one second, nothing else mattered. For just one second, we got to decompress and regroup," said Sheehan, emotional in just recounting the memory. "And then we said, 'Now let's get back to work helping patients.'"
Riegel buried her face in Gracie's fur on that morning last week, too.
"These can be some pretty dark days," Riegel said. "So to have her bring us some smiles, some laughs? It's pretty special."
Registered nurse and clinical floor manager Samantha Turner stopped her work on the seventh-floor neurology/stroke/palliative care units to take just a moment to snuggle Gracie and give her a little shoulder and neck message, the dog's favorite.
Gracie ate up the attention, her tongue hanging from her mouth and her tail wagging in delight.
For Turner, the dog's visits are a brief respite from the overwhelming sickness and long and busy hours wrought by this virus.
"She gives us a moment to pause from the craziness," Turner said. "We can breathe for a minute and step away from a hectic day."