Ed and Bishop and Me

By Cari Hamelink, RN

You never know who will change your life…

I was working triage that day. A few hours into my shift another ER nurse asked if I had any dog food in my car. (I’m an animal lover, and I do keep an extra collar and leash, along with some treats, just in case I come upon a dog running loose.) Nicole told me she was holding an admitted patient who had a “service dog” (the air quotes were Nicole’s).

Anytime I can pet a dog my day immediately improves, so I went back to this patient’s room to meet this “service dog”. Bishop was lying on the bare floor, secured to his human’s stretcher by his leash. He rose stiffly to allow me to pet him. Nicole and I decided to feed him a breakfast tray, which he wolfed down greedily. His owner, Mr. G, largely ignored us.

Cari Bishop

That night after my shift ended, I again went to check on Bishop. Mr. G told me to take him outside for a potty break, which I did. I asked Mr. G if he had any food for Bishop, and he told me that he had only a small amount. I told him I would go to Walgreens and pick some up. He asked me to get him a bag of Lays potato chips while I was there. I returned a short time later with the dog food, some milk bones, the potato chips and a dog bed that had been an impulse purchase. Bishop took to the dog bed immediately, and Mr. G showed some animation for the first time. He seemed pleased with the dog bed, and told me Bishop had never had one. He also told me somewhat gruffly that it would spoil him.

At home that night I kept thinking about the two of them. Mr. G had told me that he was homeless, that he was schizophrenic and that he had advanced lung cancer. How did he manage to care for his dog? And what would happen to his dog if something happened to Mr. G?

Before I’d left the hospital I’d noted that Mr. G had an assigned room which was being cleaned. On impulse, I called the nurse station associated with his room and told the unit clerk that if anything happened to Mr. G I would assume care of his dog if no one else did. I gave her my contact information.

The next day I was off. Mr. G and Bishop were still on my mind. I called his nurse station again and spoke with his nurse, asking if they needed anything. We decided it would be helpful if I came up to walk Bishop, since the staff wasn’t always available to do so.

I was walking Bishop four times a day for the first few days. On the third day one of my co-workers on the night shift offered to make the midnight potty run so I didn’t have to drive back up to the hospital. Then another ER night-shifter volunteered to take him out in the morning. Soon Bishop had a roster of ER staff willing to walk him and I was only having to come twice daily. He was quite a social butterfly. He made friends from all over the hospital, and loved it when people would stop to pet him as we took our constitutionals.

Mr. G. was an odd duck. Sometimes he would barely acknowledge me. He was usually busy on his laptop or cell phone.  I could see he was live streaming something. Unfailingly, he would begin speaking to me just as I was trying to leave. He needed me to rearrange his belongings, or watch something he downloaded, or he would tell me about a move he’d seen. I rarely go to movies anymore, and he seemed to think this was odd. I go the impression he felt I was stupid because I didn’t know the plots of the movies he cited.

He asked me for advice on whether he should have chemo. I explained that I wasn’t his nurse, and I didn’t know any of his medical details. He implied that since I worked at the hospital I should be aware of all of this.

Little by little, details emerged. He had been receiving disability benefits based on his schizophrenia since age 15. He proudly identified himself as homeless, though he usually checked into a motel – each month until his money ran out. Then he would live in “hidey-holes” (i.e. squat in empty buildings). He felt this was his right. He groused that the Savannah area did not have good services for the homeless. He spoke of living in Washington, D.C., where “they know how to treat their homeless.” He told me the doctors said he could not get chemo unless he had a fixed address. I kind of thought he might be probing to see if I would offer help in this area, and I wondered if I was being manipulated.

On the third day of Mr. G’s hospitalization our Patient Advocate, Ms. Elaine, came to the ER to ask a favor. Bishop needed a bath. Ms. Elaine had contracted a mobile groomer to come to the hospital, but Mr. G would not allow the dog to go down to her van. He trusted me, and would allow me to bathe Bishop in the tub in his room, so … that evening, after my shift ended, I did it. Bishop was obviously not used to tub baths and he was heavy, but we did it.

The next night after getting off late I took Bishop for his post-dinner potty break. As I prepared to leave, Mr. G asked me to go get him another bag of potato chips in a different flavor. I told him I was off the next day and would bring them back then. He became argumentative, telling me it wouldn’t take very long and he had a taste for them tonight. I countered that I had been at the hospital bathing Bishop until almost 10pm the night before and I was tired and my own family also needed care. He told me “I guess nobody cares about anything but themselves anymore.”  I went home anyway.

Mr. G’s case manager reached out to me. Mr. G was NOT a candidate for chemo. His lung cancer was too advanced. She was trying to place him in a personal care home so he could get palliative care. Depending on which home accepted Mr. G, Bishop might not be able to go with him. Could I take Bishop if that was the case? I’d think about it.

Over the next week, I learned a lot about Mr. G. He liked to be called Ed. His lung cancer had been diagnosed at Memorial several months previously when he had thrown a pulmonary embolism. He’d been discharged (to a hotel) on home oxygen. When his money ran out, he moved into an empty building down in Hinesville. Because he had no electricity, he would go to a public building or fast food restaurant and plug in his oxygen concentrator there. When the restaurant closed, he would use his oxygen cylinders. He was allotted six cylinders a month, but he was using 2-3 a day. His home oxygen company made a few extra compassionate deliveries, but eventually told him they could not continue. He called an ambulance to bring him to Savannah, but Memorial happened to be on diversion that day, so he wound up at Candler.

An Internet search revealed that he posted many videos on YouTube, that he had self-published a book called “Homeless in America: No Safe  Place”, that he tried to run as the first homeless candidate for president in 2012 and that he was a  broadcaster on something called “Vaughnlive.” It also revealed less savory information. He had been arrested several times. One arrest included a weapon charge. He had filed lawsuits for perceived violations of his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act against (among others) Parkers convenience stores, the Homeless Authority of Savannah and two local homeless shelters for refusing to allow his “service dog.”

 I was moderately concerned that if I took Bishop I would later be accused of stealing him. I consulted our Risk Management department, but was not reassured with their answer. I reached out to a few local animal rescues for advice. A few days later Jenn with Coastal Pet Rescue called me back. She was very helpful. They had the legal forms, and I was welcome to them. I drove out to pick up the documents and Jenn gave me a tour of their facility. I was very impressed. I wrote them a check.

That very afternoon I got a call from Ed’s case manager. Ed had been accepted at a personal care home that would not take Bishop. Could I be there in an hour to get him?

I quickly assembled a crate, packed up some items and went to the hospital. When it came time to sign Bishop over to me Ed tried to bargain. I was honest with him. I couldn’t promise to bring Bishop to see daily, but maybe once every week or two. Just before Ed stepped into the ambulance that would transport him I told him that I knew how difficult this was for him and what I could promise was that Bishop would always be taken care of, and that he would always be loved. The date was December 22nd.

On January 17th, I got a call from Jenn with Coastal Pet Rescue. Jenn is also an ICU nurse at Memorial. Ed was there, dying. Could I bring Bishop up to see him? We were there within the hour. Lola, the ICU Clinical Specialist, met us and walked us up to the unit. She explained that Ed was comatose and had been hanging on for hours. She thought that if Bishop was there he might let go.

It took less than an hour. As soon as we placed Bishop on the bed, he began licking Ed’s face. Ed picked up his right hand and placed it on Bishop’s back. It was there for only a moment before it fell limply back to the bed. Bishop settled in, lying next to Ed and resting his chin on Ed’s hand. Ed never opened his eyes or spoke, but he did stroke Bishop’s chin one last time.

Ed took his last breath and his heart slowed, then stopped. His nurse asked if Bishop needed some time with him. To our surprise, Bishop hopped down from the bed, wagging his tail and walked to the door. It was a lesson in how to release someone, and a lesson in how to move on.

I spent the rest of the day reflecting on the enormity of what I had witnessed. It seemed strangely intimate to be present at the death of someone I hadn’t really known well, someone that in truth I was a bit war of, someone whose life I can’t quite wrap my head around. I’ve been in this situation many times as a nurse, but my role in this was different. I realized what a gift God had given me.

That evening I posted a picture of Bishop’s head resting on Ed’s hand to Jenn’s Facebook page. I thanked her for making that call. Over 30 comments were made by nurses who had cared for Ed and Bishop most expressing how glad they were that they were able to be together in the end. I think that though many of us don’t understand or agree with some of the choices Ed made, we were all profoundly affected by the relationship between the man and his dog.

Late that night, Jenn re-posted that picture to her own timeline. She wrote, “Sometimes I wonder why I do what I do. I am broke and most of the time tired. But you know what? It is so worth it and I would not change a thing. Today I was reminded why I am a nurse and why I am in rescue. I couldn’t ask for a better life. Thank you Ed and Bishop for reminding me…”

Almost four have passed. Bishop has come a long way. He’s gotten veterinary care for his dental issues, his severe arthritis and his profound separation anxiety.  He has soft beds and furniture to lie on, quality food and lots of toys and treats. He has a German shepherd sister named Lilly. He loves me unequivocally, just as he loved Ed.

I think a lot about all the good that came from this: how Bishop bonded the ER crew as we came together to care for him; how that helped us form new relationships with staff from the 6th floor and beyond; how he taught us, by his devotion to Ed, that a man’s value is not measured by his wealth, education or place in society; how he validated the work Jenn does in both of her roles – nursing and rescue. Maybe they are really the same.

Humans can learn so much from dogs, if only we are open to it. Bishop was just as content being with Ed as he is being with me. Dogs bloom where they are planted, so to speak. They live in the present. They don’t look back with regret. They are accepting, non-judgmental, loyal, adaptable and they love, unconditionally. Humans could do worse than to aspire to be more like dogs. Thank you, Ed and Bishop, for reminding me…