Sometimes a Great Dane can be an angel in disguise.
Just weeks ago, St. Albert residents Alanna Hughes and her sister Raina moved into their father's house to care for him while he was dying.
They sought to make Bernie Douglas's final days as comfortable and pain-free as possible, while keeping him in the comforts of his own home.
One element was missing for Douglas, though. Long ago, he’d had a lovely Great Dane named Lord that would put his paws up on his master’s shoulders in a big canine hug. Douglas had talked about getting another one, but couldn’t because he was so ill.
“We wanted to have someone come with a Great Dane and surprise him,” Hughes said.
A chatroom post on a Facebook support group for St. Albert mothers yielded 40 volunteers, eager to have their canines help out.
“I was shocked and amazed at how many people were willing to come and fulfill this dying wish for someone they didn’t even know,” Hughes said. “It was very heartwarming.”
As Douglas’s health turned for the worse, Hughes felt the need to expedite the visit.
Stacey MacKinnon saw the urgency and came right away with her gorgeous blue merle Great Dane, Cache.
The St. Albert senior was astonished to see the vision of big-eyed, long-legged Cache loping towards him.
“He laughed," Hughes said. "At first he was in disbelief. I think he thought maybe he was hallucinating — he actually teared up.”
MacKinnon saw it too.
“The look on her father’s face was just priceless. He had so much life in him when we walked through the door,” she said. “He had so much energy, he was talking up a storm.”
For his part, Cache lived up to his breed’s “gentle giant” reputation. Douglas’s weight had plummeted from a trim 160 to a skeletal 110 pounds, and his slight frame was dwarfed by his canine company.
“I think animals and dogs can just tell when someone is upset or not well. The dog was very gentle and would come up close to him for my dad to be able to pet him,” Hughes said.
After a quick investigation to sniff out the house, Cache settled in, posing for pictures, snuffling up proffered treats, shaking a paw, administering Great Dane kisses, and resting the velvety fur of his chin close to Douglas.
“Cache had zero judgment about how sick he was, but he was almost gentle with him," Mackinnon said. "The way he interacted with him, it was a very genuine excitement to see this man,” said owner Stacey MacKinnon.
The 40-minute visit flew by and afterward MacKinnon and Cache sat in the truck for a moment, absorbing the beauty of it.
“I just brought my dog over for a visit," she said. "For that to be such an impactful thing for them, pulls my heart strings every time I think of it. It was a complete stranger’s house, I had no idea who they were, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.”
MacKinnon said she’s hoping their shared story may inspire others to do something nice.
“Yes, there are good things that happen in the world, not just the negative stuff,” she said.
The importance of advocacy
Palliative care requires a village, and Hughes said there was help from many partners: a great pharmacy, a compassionate boss at the Greater St. Albert Catholic School District. The family connected with the Compassionate Network for help with nursing.
“Being able to get care into our home to assist us was most beneficial,” Hughes said, adding she wished she’d known sooner that if she advocated to Alberta Health Care, they could have had more help.
“More people need to know that having somebody in your home for palliative is possible. Alberta Health Care will come in and do an assessment, and you can get approved funding to pay for a certain number of hours,” she said.
“There is support for breaks, and for assistance. That needs to be made more publicly aware,” she said. “Advocating for yourself and your loved one is extremely important. You really need to ask the questions. You don’t have to go to the hospital and leave your loved one there. You can keep them in home and get medical support and attention.
“Even though it was super difficult and hard emotionally and mentally and physically exhausting, I wouldn’t trade for anything knowing he was cared for by a loved one, not just in a hospital,” she said.
Douglas was a lucky man in many ways.
When working as a pipefitter and gasfitter, he and a handful of colleagues won the Lotto 649. It enabled instant retirement and a ticket to enjoying warm winters in Hawaii and Mexico.
Douglas cared deeply for his friends and family, his daughter recalled. “Friendship was probably one of his core values,” she said.
But when years of smoking and working in a smoky industry got the best of him with COPD, he had to be flown home from Mexico. As illness closed his esophagus off from his stomach, he needed to eat through a tube. He went from 150 pounds to 103 within a year.
“It was a complete life change for him, not to be active, not to be able to golf," Hughes said. "Having to rely on me for everything. I think it was difficult for him to ask.”
Hughes was Douglas's caregiver for most of his final three years. Then both daughters moved in to manage his care in the last two weeks of his life as his body shut down, and shared reflections and emotional support.
“We took a lot of sentimental but heartbreaking beautiful photos together,” Hughes said.
“It was very hard, but also, quite rewarding to be able to care for somebody that intimately, being able to have him at home for his last weeks," she said. "Close to the end, he just wanted to have his things close to him, so he could remember.”
“To have his children and grandchildren close to him, it was a much more personal and intimate way of passing.”
“In the last couple weeks, he kept saying ‘I don’t know what I did, but I brought two angels into the world to take care of me,’” she said. “He was very appreciative — he was so thankful that we were able to do that for him.”
In the end, death came quietly. The day after Douglas mused he might not wake the next day, his big heart just stopped.
“Everyone said their goodbyes and he just kind of went to sleep … He passed at home, with my sister and I sitting at his bedside, holding his hand,” Hughes said.