Nothing brings smiles to faces in the North Carolina Cancer Hospital like one four-legged staff member. Even the gentlest nurse, the most engaging doctor or the kindest staff member has a hard time competing with Cheese, a seven-year-old Golden Retriever and therapy dog.
Born on Cinco de Mayo and named for queso, a dish popular on that holiday, Cheese makes the rounds of the cancer hospital most Tuesdays with his grandfather, Bill White, a longtime hospital volunteer. A mellow dog, Cheese doesn’t even have to wag his tail to get a delighted response from patients and staff members alike. In fact, he does his best work lying down.
Pet therapy at UNC
Cheese and White are part of UNC Health Volunteer Services and Tar Heal Paws, an animal assisted activities and therapy program that delivers support and companionship for patients and visitors at UNC Health. The program provides patients, family members and staff the opportunity to interact with animals and reduce stress associated with hospitalization and medical intervention.
White has been a volunteer for six years. For the past four years, he’s worked with Cheese, and he also volunteered for two years with his therapy dog, Shep, who retired from service in 2019. White got started working with his furry companions when a friend suggested he might be a good fit for Tar Heal Paws.
“My friend was a doctor at REX hospital, and he’d had kind of a bad day and said there was a lot of tension on the floor. Then the elevator doors opened up, and a Golden Retriever walked out, and he could feel the stress level go down. He called me after that and said ‘you and Shep need to get in the program.’ I went online and got involved.”
Comforting patients, caregivers and staff
As he walks the hallways, Cheese is greeted with squeals of his name – “Cheeeeeeese!” – and often, treats from his favorite staff members. He is extra chummy with those who had bacon or sausage for breakfast. One patient even saved him a little and shared it during their visit.
“You love mommy, don’t you? I didn’t sleep too good last night. I had a rough night, Cheese,” Brenda Pemberton said, scratching his ears. “Thank you for loving me, Cheese.” Pemberton’s brother, Connell Daniels, was keeping her company in her hospital room, and Cheese offered the caregiver some support, too, lying at Daniels’ feet.
“I’ve been having a hard time, and I appreciate this,” Daniels said, rubbing Cheese’s furry head.
Cheese also visits patients in waiting rooms, the Emergency Department and the pediatric oncology floor.
White often chats with patients and their families about their own pets whom they may be missing at home or have passed away. A chatty Lorelei Nickey, 5, called him a “baby dog,” while hugging him tightly and told Cheese all about her two dogs at home – Maya, whom she likes, and Damien, who steals her snacks and is not her favorite.
The care teams on each floor make a point of telling White which patients might like a visit, and Cheese is always ready to go to work, getting hugs, cuddles and ear scratches from patients who find him a welcome distraction from cancer treatment.
‘He really makes a difference’
“Cheese is a really great asset, a great tool for us. We’ve had patients that are just freaked out about everything, and he comes by and you can feel him pull them out of whatever they have going on,” said Jim Pirtle, RN, BSN, of his infusion patients at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, the clinical home of UNC Lineberger. “Just talking with [White], people enjoy it. It’s something kind of cool. Everyone’s face just changes. He does a great job, all our volunteers do, but he really makes a difference.”
Cheese was even named employee of the month on the fourth floor of the N.C. Cancer Hospital. White said they had a collage featuring pictures of Cheese and gave him an award for his service.
Because, who doesn’t like Cheese?