Amy Dobyns and her animal-assisted therapy cat, Maxwell Pepperoni, are a welcome site for patients and staff of Ohio’s Community Mercy Hospice. Dressed in a bow-tie collar and riding in a fancy pet stroller, the orange cat brings a smile to patients and staff.
But when COVID-19 restrictions suspended volunteer activities, including animal-assisted therapy, Dobyns offered patients and their families virtual animal-assisted therapy through a collection of photos and videos of Maxwell Pepperoni.
“We miss our patients,” Dobyns said. “I wanted to make sure they had a chance to see Maxwell Pepperoni.”
Tami Clark, volunteer coordinator with Ohio’s Community Mercy Hospice, shared Dobyns’ photos and videos of Maxwell Pepperoni with staff, including case managers, social workers, personal care specialists and chaplains to use with any patients who could benefit from the virtual animal-assisted therapy.
“I was so impressed with Amy going out of her way to support to others as best she could offer during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Clark said. “Her tender love and care of Maxwell Pepperoni and our patients is very sweet.”
As soon as volunteer restrictions are lifted, Dobyns and Maxwell Pepperoni are ready to pounce back into their regular visits. “Before COVID-19, Maxwell Pepperoni enjoyed his visits with patients. He loves the attention,” Dobyns said. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has missed visiting with patients. Some days, he jumps in his stroller and sits there ready to go!”
Before COVID-19, Dobyns and Maxwell Pepperoni went through a checklist before each visit with patients. Dobyns bathed and groomed Maxwell Pepperoni. She also sanitized his fancy pet stroller.
Maxwell Pepperoni wasn’t always a therapy cat. He had a rough beginning. Maxwell Pepperoni was an underweight, sick and scared cat who was rescued by Columbus Humane. However, he found a good home with Dobyns, who adopted him a year after she lost her family cat of 15 years.
“The day I said my goodbyes to my family cat of 15 years, I had to fly home from a trip. On a layover, I met a lady moving from South America to California,” Dobyns said. “I approached her, which I never would do, and asked if I could pet her cat for a moment. I was struggling with the loss that was fast approaching and trying desperately to calm down.”
The woman’s cat had been on a long flight, but she placed him in her lap, and Dobyns cried into his fur. His name was Pizza the Cat.
One year later, Dobyns went to the Eat, Purr Love Cat Café in Columbus, Ohio. That’s where she met Maxwell Pepperoni who had been placed at the cat café. “We weren’t going to adopt, just visit the cats for an hour, but Maxwell Pepperoni clearly had other plans!” she said. “We left the cat café, but we couldn’t stop thinking about him. A week later we went back to adopt him.”
Dobyns wanted to name him after Pizza the Cat, who provided some therapy for her that day at the airport. However, her boyfriend wanted to keep the name the shelter gave him.
“The compromise was Maxwell Pepperoni,” she said. “I am so glad we chose it. His name always gets a reaction from people. It serves as a good icebreaker.”
Dobyns and Maxwell Pepperoni began volunteering in the summer of 2018 at the Hospice House at Ohio’s Hospice of Dayton. But after learning that there were not many animal-assisted therapy volunteers in Springfield, they began visiting patients of Ohio’s Community Mercy Hospice, mainly in nursing homes.
“I originally thought we would do story time at a local library, and I hoped we would visit a children’s hospital. However, the children’s hospital does not allow cats,” Dobyns said. “Maxwell Pepperoni did well training in a nursing home, and we were encouraged to consider hospice. I knew he would do a wonderful job.”
When Maxwell Pepperoni and Dobyns visit patients of Ohio’s Community Mercy Hospice, they bring stickers or pictures of Maxwell Pepperoni to give to patients. On the first visit with a new patient, he brings a small orange stuffed cat with a bow-tie collar. He cuddles with patients and does tricks, including giving high-fives with both of his front paws, balancing and stretching his front paws in the air, and shaking hands.
Dobyns and Maxwell Pepperoni completed their training with Miami Valley Pet Therapy Association (MVPTA). Maxwell Pepperoni is a certified therapy pet through MVPTA. He practices Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), which include visiting patients at the bedside, allowing patients to pet or hold him, and performing tricks.
“He is there for comfort and companionship for the patients,” Dobyns said. “But that comfort is often shared by those around the patients as well, from the family members there visiting to the medical staff treating the patients.”
With a typical visit schedule of two or three patients at a time and visits twice a month, Maxwell Pepperoni has learned the places he likes.
“At one facility, we have to make sure to get a look at the fish tank and at another, Maxwell needs to watch the birds for a minute or two before his visit,” Dobyns said.
For most visits, Dobyns and Maxwell Pepperoni travel between 45 minutes to an hour. “I love how people respond to Maxwell Pepperoni. I know not everyone likes cats, but Max is a sight to see,” Dobyns said. “He always wears a bow-tie collar and he rides in a fancy pet stroller. Just the sight of him will often make people smile as we walk to our patient’s room. We have had nursing staff tell us how just seeing him made their day better, and Maxwell Pepperoni certainly loves the attention.”
Dobyns sees patients’ body language change and grimaces turn to smiles when they see Maxwell Pepperoni come by for a visit. He loves getting to know patients.
“I have been complimented on the way I interact with patients, or how I have a talent for it, which often makes me uncomfortable. It’s all Maxwell Pepperoni,” Dobyns said. “It seems silly to say that you are inspired by a pet, but I am. I have learned how, even if you only have a little to give, it still has value. My cat has given me a way to connect with people I didn’t think I’d be able to do. We are honored to be hospice volunteers.”