Charlie West has been waiting for a heart transplant since December at Tufts Medical Center, where he has suffered two strokes since being admitted and spends much of his day tethered to sensitive machines that monitor his condition.
The strokes have shrunk West’s range of vision, and the 49-year-old Mattapoisett man has had only one visit from a relative — his mother, who was granted a special waiver — because of the hospital’s precautions to keep COVID-19 at bay.
But then there is Bob, a big, warm-hearted service dog who stops by West’s room just off the nurses’ station a few times a week to hang out and bring a welcome dose of companionship and comfort. Bob’s been roaming the hospital’s floors, visiting about seven to 10 patients a day, for five days a week since August.
“If I’m feeling low, he’ll jump up and hang out a bit,” West told a socially distanced reporter. “He brightens my day and breaks the monotony. If I feel down in the dumps, he helps out.”
Bob is a mix of golden retriever and goldendoodle, tilted heavily toward retriever. And he’s an official Tufts Medical Center employee, complete with identification badge, who puts in an 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift after leaving Salem with his handler, Anne Marie Sirois, the hospital’s manager of volunteer services.
Bob even has an Instagram account.
“He’s probably the most popular staff member around. He’s a great co-worker,” Sirois said. “Bob’s one flaw is he sometimes tries to eat his harness.”
Bob’s popularity — his animal magnetism, as it were — surfaces time and again as he patters through the long corridors of the downtown Boston hospital, and in rooms where patients have been cut off from nearly all outside contact during the pandemic.
Medical staff cry out “Bob! Bob!” when they see him turn a corner. Nurses, clinical technicians, and support staff kneel and pet his flowing coat — professionally groomed once a week — if Bob already hasn’t jumped to place his front paws on their shoulders.
“He’s a bit of sunshine. He keeps it light around here,” said Jordan Dolock, a critical care technician in the cardiac unit. “There’s not much that some of these people have to look forward to.”
The staff, burdened by added stress during the pandemic, also benefit from Bob’s unflappable what-can-I-do-for-you demeanor.
“To be honest,” Dolock said, “I think he does more for the employees than he does for the patients.”
But even service dogs aren’t immune from COVID protocols. Anyone who pets Bob at Tufts — staff and patients alike — pumps a container of hand sanitizer first. Bob also does not enter any room if a patient there has an allergy to dogs.
Bob came to the hospital through a Dogs for Joy grant from the Dunkin’ Joy in Childhood Foundation after 2,200 hours of training at Canine Assistants, a nonprofit group in Georgia that raises and places service dogs.
Sirois and Andrea Colliton, the director of child life services at Tufts Children’s Hospital, spent a week in Georgia working with Bob before bringing him to Massachusetts as a 2-year-old.
“He’s made my job so much more amazing. I knew it would be a benefit, but I didn’t realize how much,” Colliton said.
Colliton and Sirois divide Bob’s time, with Colliton focusing on pediatric patients. One recent morning, Colliton brought Bob to visit a 14-year-old girl with Nephrotic syndrome, a kidney condition; a 7-year-old boy who had shown COVID-like symptoms, his mother said; and a 10-year-old girl who had suffered a concussion and bruised a lung in a fall.
“It’s stressful,” Colliton said. “I can’t take all of their pain away. You see them suffering; you see their families suffering. I need some private time with Bob, too.”
Each of the children was meeting Bob for the first time. And in each case, the clinical ambience of a hospital room was softened by the dog’s calming friendliness and the children’s broad smiles.
Bob doesn’t need to do much more than be himself. He senses that the patients need comforting, Sirois said. As a result, all his movements are gentle, slow, and patient.
On this day, he hopped onto each bed when asked by Sirois or Colliton. And then, often looking directly at the patient, he waited for the inevitable petting before returning the affection by licking a hand or forearm. Bob never rushed to leave a bed, nor did he ever seem distracted.
“They’re always there for you no matter what, and they love the attention as much as you do,” said Jessica Stanton, a 24-year-old from Billerica who was awaiting a heart transplant.
“He makes me forget,” Stanton said.
Sirois said Bob sometimes will pause outside the room of a patient he has visited before, even if it’s not part of that day’s route.
“He’ll stop at a door and won’t move,” she said. “He can feel that they need him.”
One patient Bob wanted to see this day was Shawn McGrath, a 42-year-old Weymouth man who has been waiting 10 months in the hospital for a new heart. It has been a difficult time, but he has found a friend.
“Bob would stay in this room all day if I let him,” Sirois said. “He pulled me here.”
Suffering from congestive heart failure, McGrath sat in a chair near a window in the room that has become a home. Shamrocks hung above the bed. A Bruins sweater lay draped over the end of the bed. Green tinsel bordered the television.
“I have my good days and bad days, but seeing him just cheers me up,” McGrath said. “Without Bob and the nurses, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Slowly but purposefully, Bob made his way across the small room toward the chair, where McGrath looked into the dog’s face and stroked him under the chin.
“This is what these dogs were born to do. They can feel when somebody wants to get some love,” Sirois said afterward. “And I get comfort being able to make a patient’s stay in the hospital a little better.”
The morning rounds complete, Bob and Sirois headed for a midday break on an outdoor deck, where the dog’s leash and vest were removed and he was sent on his own — sprinting for balls, bounding in the air, rolling over on his back.
After three hours of nonstop giving, Bob was letting loose a little before going back to work.
“Up here,” Sirois said, “he’s just a dog.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.