Her interest is genuine, her approach is gentle and the reception she receives is, without fail, one of pure joy.
“There she is!”
“Aren’t you beautiful! She’s lovely.”
“What a sweetheart – I love you, too.”
It is the simplest of gifts that Whisper – rescued off the streets by the Afghan Society in California and adopted by South Surrey resident Alberto Canhas – offers: unconditional love.
Yet it is a gift that is making a profound difference at Peace Arch Hospital, where Whisper and Canhas have spent every Wednesday for most of the last three years visiting patients on the sixth floor and in the hospital’s Oceanside unit, a mental-health unit focused on seniors.
“If I could do it every day, I’d do it,” said Canhas of the pair’s volunteer effort.
“She’s got this energy. She just changes the atmosphere.”
Canhas and Whisper are a certified pet-therapy team with BC Pets & Friends, a non-profit organization that connects interested owners of loving dogs, cats and rabbits with long-term care facilities across the Lower Mainland. Every year, more than 15,000 patients reap the rewards of visits from teams like Canhas and Whisper, with benefits ranging from stress relief and increased optimism to a reignited spark for life or an easing of the final steps before death.
Whisper, despite evidence that she had suffered on the streets – she was found “in really, really bad shape” – was a natural for the job, said Canhas.
Not long after her 2008 arrival in South Surrey, it became a regular event for the bearded-collie-cross to gingerly deliver orphaned baby rabbits to Canhas. And when his 19-year-old Jack Russell was struggling, Whisper supported her aged companion through his last year – helping him walk and laying with him for hours at a time.
Canhas, 52, knew he wanted to share Whisper’s spirit. He discovered the pet-therapy path after iliac-bypass surgery left him needing daily pain-management medication and unable to return to work.
“She was meant to come here and help the people here,” he said.
Jenn Walker, Peace Arch Hospital’s co-ordinator of volunteer resources, described Whisper as “one of the most conscientious volunteers.”
“She sets foot in the hospital and she’s all business,” Walker said.
She noted that when Canhas and Whisper signed up as pet-therapy volunteers, the commitment was for one hour per week. But the draw of Whisper – to patients and staff alike – easily stretches each visit to four hours at a time. Half of that is simply travel time between the two wards, as Whisper gravitates to check in on anyone in a wheelchair along the way, or catches the attention of an employee or visitor who absolutely must say hello.
“People make requests (for a visit) on the spot,” Canhas said. “It’s hard to say no.”
He recalled stopping by one room where a woman was holding her father’s hand as he lay in bed. The man hadn’t said a word all day – and then along came Whisper.
“He opened his eyes, turned around… (and) asked for a kiss.”
On another occasion, Whisper spent time in the palliative unit with a mother of two who was nearing the end. The woman died peacefully the next day.
Canhas said for him, volunteering is a part of life, a part of being in a community.
“Most people just live and work. When you’re volunteering, I think you get a different perspective,” he said.
“That’s how I was raised – always help somebody because life is mirrors. Whatever I see out there, that could be me.
“We all have a journey. This is part of my journey, to help other people at the end of their journey.”