Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia has a very special resident in their hospital. His name is Tom, and he’s a tomcat that’s established himself as the facility’s feline therapist. The veteran’s hospital not only provides rehabilitation, hospice/palliative care and long-term skilled nursing, but an empathetic service animal as well. He arrived after some hospital staff read a book called Making Rounds with Oscar by Dr. David Dosa, a physician who treated patients with medicine and with his therapy cat, Oscar. They knew they needed a cat just like Oscar, so they adopted Tom.
Some people are hesitant about Tom’s presence in the hospital, but he befriends everyone he meets. Patients, families and hospital staff have sometimes claimed they are not a fan of cats, so there is a dedicated “No Cat Zone” for people who don’t want to hang out with Tom. But more often than not, these non-cat people are finding themselves petting Tom and feeding him treats.
Most importantly, he’s bringing a lot of joy and comfort to the residents that need his care. TODAY interviewed the hospital staff and some patients to find out the great things that Tom does. Dottie Rizzo, chief nurse in the hospital’s extended care service, shared a story with TODAY about a veteran’s daughter that didn’t like cats. The woman would shut the door when she visited so that Tom wouldn’t disturb them. “One day she stepped out of her father’s room for a few minutes and Tom went in,” said Rizzo. “Then the cat came out and ‘went to get her,’ meowing at her until she returned to her father’s room. Minutes later her father died. The daughter was convinced Tom made sure she was with her father when he passed.”
Army veteran James Gearhart shares the love for Tom. He was a resident at the hospital while being treated for throat cancer, from which he is recovering well. “Tom knows when someone is having a hard time. He laid on my bed a lot and I rubbed and scratched him the way cats like,” Gearhart said. “One day I gave him some of my Ensure vanilla drink and he drank every bit of it. Then he rubbed on me and licked my hands.”
Tom is an amazing cat that has helped a lot of people through some very hard times. He’s always there when someone needs him and he likes to be involved in staff meetings as well, always meowing when he’s locked out of the room until someone lets him in. He’s made such an impact in peoples’ lives that one resident’s daughter wrote a book about him. When her father passed in 2014, Sharon Herndon wanted to pay a tribute to Tom’s unconditional love and care. In her book, Tom the Angel Cat, she wrote, “Tom is the final salute to a job well done.” We know without a doubt that she’s right. Tom’s presence in the hospital is truly felt, needed and appreciated by all. He’s serving our country’s heroes by acting as one himself.