For the past dozen years, a volunteer named Junior has been making the rounds at University Hospital, comforting the sick, soothing the scared, and lowering stress levels of patients, visitors and staff alike — all without saying a word.
Junior, by the way, is a cat — one of a handful of therapy animals that are part of University Health System’s Paws Up Pet Therapy program, overseen by the Volunteer Services Department.
Junior is almost 17 years old (that’s about 85 people years) and feeling a bit under the weather himself these days. He’s getting frail and lost one eye to melanoma. So he and his owner, Beverly Oakes, decided it’s time for Junior to retire as a pet therapy volunteer. On Wednesday, the hospital hosted a going-away party for him.
“We get a lot of smiles, a lot of comments like ‘I’m a dog person, but I like this cat,’” said Beverly Oakes, who found Junior as a kitten of 12 or 13 weeks of age, abandoned on a farm in the Rio Grande Valley. “I had one little girl tell us he made her headache go away. Which shows how (pet therapy) can take your mind off pain.”
As proof of just how valued a member of the University Health System family Junior has been, in 2014 he was named Volunteer of the Year at the annual Employee Awards Banquet.
Ms. Oakes, who also has a pet therapy dog that visits the hospital along with Junior, said she knew pretty quickly Junior was special.
“We were driving in the car one day, my husband and I, and we were having a heated conversation about something or other. Junior reached up and put his paw on my lips. I thought, he’s such a sensitive cat.
“He’s always been pretty laid back,” she added. “I’ve had a lot of cats and never had a cat quite like him.”