SALEM, Va. — Tom, the cat, holds the official position of a counselor and friend at the Salem Va Medical Center, as he intuitively comes to the side of ill veterans. Tom first joined the hospital in 2012, after Chief Nurse Dottie Rizzo read a book about a cat who comforts dementia patients and can anticipate when they are about to die. The book, “Making Rounds With Oscar” by Dr. David Dosa, inspired Rizzo to find an appropriate cat to join their team. After much searching, Rizzo came across Tom at a local shelter.
The veteran residents at the hospital, which provides rehabilitation, palliative care, and long-term nursing reveal that Tom has a sixth sense about which of the veterans are in the most need for comfort. Tom frequently snuggles about to the patients in an attempt to make the environment as stress-free as possible. Army veteran James Gearhart says, “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.” Although not every patient and visitor like cats, a lot of the time he ends up growing on people. There is also an area in the hospital where Tom is not allowed to enter, in the case of individuals being allergic or afraid.
Rizzo recalls how the daughter of one patient wasn’t crazy about Tom and would lock him out of the room when visiting her father. However, one time she left the door open and after she exited the room the cat snuck in, “then 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.” One woman was even inspired to write a book about Tom called “Tom The Angel Cat.”