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Great Dane brings comfort to palliative care patient

Palliative care at home, plus a surprise visit from a local Great Dane, made Bernie Douglas' last days more special.
Palliative patient Bernie Douglas got a visit from a local Great Dane; a gesture of care and community in his waning days. Photo supplied.

Sometimes a Great Dane can be an angel in disguise.

Weeks ago, St. Albert residents Alanna Hughes and her sister Raina moved into their father's house (Bernie Douglas) to care for him while he was dying. 

One element was missing for Douglas, though. Long ago, he’d had a Great Dane named Lord that would put his paws on his master’s shoulders in a big canine hug. Douglas had talked about getting another dog, but couldn’t because he was so ill.

“We wanted to have someone with a Great Dane come 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 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.”

Stacey MacKinnon stepped up with her blue merle Great Dane, Cache, a 'gentle giant' that dwarfed Douglas' slight frame.

“I think animals can just tell when someone is upset or not well. The dog was very gentle and would come up close for my dad to be able to pet him,” Hughes said.

"For that to be such an impactful thing for them, pulls my heart strings," said MacKinnon. "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.”

The importance of advocacy

"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,” Hughes said.

“Even though it was 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 enjoying warm winters in Hawaii and Mexico.

When years of smoking got the best of him with COPD, Douglas 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.

“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. 

“To have his children and grandchildren close to him, it was a much more personal and intimate way of passing.”