Author, dog bring comfort to dying patients
Jon Katz to appear at Barre Opera House
By Mel Huff Staff Writer
Published in the Times Argus
(link no longer available)
BARRE, VT—Two years ago when writer Jon Katz rescued Izzy, a hyperactive, abandoned border collie, he never imagined that the animal would become his fellow hospice volunteer. Katz, the author of "Izzy and Lenore" and the New York Times best-seller "Dog Days," will be at the Barre Opera House on Oct. 21 to discuss his life with dogs. Izzy will be there, too.
Amy Miller, a local therapist, is bringing Katz to Barre and will interview him for her television show, "Connect With Amy Miller." Part of the proceeds from the show will be donated to the Central Vermont Humane Society and North County Animal League.
Katz worked for the Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Dallas Times-Herald and "CBS Morning News" before becoming a media critic and author. He has written 18 books.
In 2003 – against the advice of his friends – he bought a farm in New York, just over the border from Vermont. Since then he has shared Bedlam Farm with goats, donkeys, barn cats, a flock of sheep, chickens, a rooster named Winston (after Churchill), a huge, mellow steer called Elvis and a succession of dogs.
The farm has provided the subject matter for Katz' most successful books, enabling him to write about animals, particularly dogs, and to reflect on the human and canine condition.
When Katz adopted Izzy, he was looking for things he could do with his dogs that would connect him to people. He had already started thinking about becoming a hospice volunteer and grew even more interested in the idea after meeting a social worker who talked about the isolation of the dying. Often friends, neighbors and even the family of people living their final days avoid them because they don't know what to do, she said, but they would love to have a visit from a person – or a dog.
Meanwhile, Katz had trained and socialized Izzy. Man and dog went through hospice training together, were each issued photo IDs and began making visits.
Izzy proved remarkably attuned to patients.
Their first patient, an 86-year-old woman in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, was terrified of being touched; her nurses and daughter had difficulty bathing her or changing her clothes.
When Katz and Izzy arrived, Izzy crept into bed with the woman and buried his head under her hand. For the first time in weeks, the woman spoke, murmuring, "Oh! Oh, how pretty, pretty." After she fell asleep, Izzy jumped down from the bed, padded over to the woman's exhausted daughter and offered her his paw.
Izzy proved himself equally adept at comforting others, from Timmy, a dying child, to Glen, a much-loved truck driver. Izzy reminded Glen of his own dog, Pal, who rode everywhere with him in his truck, and Glen would cry when Izzy climbed in bed with him. Glen's sister-in-law, his caregiver in his final days, wept and prayed with Izzy in her arms. After Glen died, she told the people at his memorial service that Izzy and Katz "lifted us like a cloud."
Katz observed that his emotionally charged relationship with animals "comes out of the loss and pain in my life. A lot of us are reworking issues in our lives with animals," he noted.
He called hospice work "one of the great gifts to me, to my stories, to my photography and to my life, as a person."
"I was very anxious about it," he admits. "I didn't think I would like it. My friends all thought I was crazy. But when you come into a house with Izzy, you just light up the sky. You bring people so much pleasure and so much companionship."
If becoming a hospice volunteer was a risk, so was buying the farm, "and yet it has worked," Katz declared. "The whole experience of my having the farm is an affirmation to me of the idea that people should not be afraid to try to live their lives, even if they fail.
"We live in a culture in which change is so fearful for people that they just think they can't do it. I'm a great advocate of the idea of encouraging people to try to take creative risks in their lives, that their lives are not simply about surviving," Katz said. "There's risk in doing that, and there's risk in not doing it, but that's a big part of what the book and my life is about."