Volunteer Spotlight: Amy Merritt

Amy Merritt and her dog, Athena
Merritt and her dog, Athena, enjoy a break in Hollings’ Serenity Garden.

Volunteer Amy Merritt has a full-time job as a human resources specialist with the U.S. Department of State. She arranges her hours, though, to make time to do pet therapy to cheer up patients and staff at Hollings Cancer Center.

What makes Athena so special?

My husband Scott and I brought Athena home when she was only six weeks old. That is very young, but her mother stopped feeding the entire litter, so it was time for the six pups to go to their forever homes. We know the owners of her father, Zeus (hence her Greek name), and he is the biggest, gentlest German Shepherd dog we had ever seen. Weighing in at 110 pounds in  his prime, Zeus attended pool parties with his owners and walked around the yard with sunglasses on! When we found out his owners had a female German Shepherd and were going to breed

them, we knew we wanted one of his pups. We got the pick of the litter, and luckily Athena is mellow just like her father.

What inspired you to do pet therapy?

This always brings a tear to my eye, literally. In September of 2015, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, in which cancerous plasma cells weaken the bones. The cancer was found when my father stepped up to enter a building and broke his hip. After hip replacement surgery and a brief period of rehab, he started radiation therapy in southern Indiana. He never talked about his treatments, but he did mention the Saint Bernard named Molly that greeted him in the waiting room every day.

And while my father was undergoing radiation, my mom visited with Molly and her handler in the waiting room. I knew then  that therapy dogs truly made an impact on patients and their families in medical settings. I lost my father to cancer just two months after he was diagnosed, the day before Thanksgiving 2015. Shortly after that, I took Athena back to training for a

refresher course and learned about Southeastern Therapy Animal Resources (STAR), a local group that advocates therapy work in any public setting.

Why is it so important?

I have many stories! It’s amazing how Athena just seems to know who needs her, whether it’s a patient, family member or employee of the hospital. On Athena’s first visit to MUSC, we visited an elderly man who had suffered from a stroke. He was sitting in a chair in his room, and Athena sat at his feet and he patted her on the head. He called her a “nice dog.” When we left his room, the nurse followed us out and said, “Those are the first words he has spoken since his stroke!” I cannot tell you how proud I was of my dog that day. And just recently, as a woman was coming out of an office in Hollings, Athena walked right up to her and leaned against her legs. As the woman petted Athena’s head, she said, “I just found out I am going to be admitted today, and I’m going to miss my dogs.”

How is Athena settling into her new role?

Our visits to Hollings are incredibly rewarding. Dogs act as an ice breaker and instant conversation starter when patients are lonely and scared, or they remind people of the pups they have left at home while in the hospital. Patients, visitors and staff at MUSC  and Hollings have been nothing but kind to us. Everyone is friendly and grateful. Some of the nurses even have treats stashed in desk drawers, and believe me, Athena remembers where those are!

Ironically, I ran into Athena’s puppy trainer as we were leaving Hollings one Friday morning. She was thrilled to see Athena in action, and I told her we’d been volunteering for about a year now. She took a picture of Athena in her bright pink vest that says “Pet Me,” and she cried as she gave me a hug.