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Tom the cat has 'sixth sense' in comforting ailing veterans

Tom the cat gives the gifts of comfort and love to veterans at Salem VA Medical Center when they are seriously ill or close to death.
/ Source: TODAY

You may know about tomcats, but meet Tom the cat who has a very special gift indeed.

He’s the appointed feline friend, counselor and caretaker at Salem VA Medical Center in Salem, Virginia. There, he is revered as an animal who may sometimes know more about empathy “in the moment” than his humans who love him just for being “Tom.”

The lovefest goes both ways, as Tom returns affection in kind to the resident veterans of the hospital’s community living center that provides rehabilitation, hospice/palliative care and long-term skilled nursing.

“You can’t beat a good, purring, loving kitty cat,” Army veteran James Gearhart of Bassett, Virginia, told TODAY. He lived in the rehabilitation unit while being treated for throat cancer, and says he's doing well after being recently discharged.

Tom brings comfort to a veteran who sleeps better knowing his cat friend is there.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

“Tom knows when someone is having a hard time. He laid on my bed a lot and I rubbed and scratched him the way cats like,” Gearhart said. “One day I gave him some of my Ensure vanilla drink and he drank every bit of it. Then he rubbed on me and licked my hands.”

Army veteran James Gearhart gives his favorite cat a treat to say "thank you."Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

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The hospital’s chief of extended care service, Dr. Blake Lipscomb, told TODAY that Tom stood by him one day when he had to officially pronounce a veteran dead. “Tom looked up at me and meowed. He had been with the veteran and his family at a time that was hardest for them, doing exactly what we wanted him to do — to help make a more low-stress, homelike environment.”

Tom the cat is there when people need him.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

In 2012, Dottie Rizzo, chief nurse in the hospital’s extended care service, along with physician assistant Laura Hart, read a book called “Making Rounds with Oscar,” by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician. In it, the doctor documents the story of a cat named Oscar who comforts dementia patients and appears to anticipate when they are about to die.

Tom shares the love with a veteran, Mr. Wyman, in a way that only Tom can.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

“We knew we needed a cat just like that,” Rizzo told TODAY. “We enlisted the assistance of a local veterinarian’s office manager who went to a shelter and visited with the cats for a long time before deciding on Tom.”

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Both the staff and the cat know that not everyone likes cats — including patients, their families and yes, even hospital staff. “We have a sign that says ‘No Cat Zone,’ which indicates to non-cat-lovers that Tom won’t be in that area,’ Hart told TODAY.

“You can’t beat a good, purring, loving kitty cat,” said Army veteran James Gearhart of Bassett, Virginia.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

“There are patients who say they don’t love him, but they do end up loving him anyway — they just don’t know it!” she said.

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“Then there are families that say they’re ‘allergic,’” Rizzo said. “Within a week, they’re bringing a treat for the cat! We have more than a thousand employees, and some come on their breaks to bring Tom food and just pet him. He recently ‘told off’ an overnight supervisor who forgot to bring his treats.”

She remembers in particular a terminal patient with Parkinson’s disease who couldn’t speak very well. “With Tom in his lap, it was less difficult for him to talk, because rubbing the cat calmed him down and relaxed his vocal cords,” she said.

Tom knows his turf and he’s very territorial, Hart added, and dogs aren’t exempt. One day a very large mastiff came into the hospital as part of the pet therapy program, and Tom jumped on the canine's back. “After that the dog refused to come back unless Tom was secured in his room,” she said.

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The insightful feline thinks he’s really a person, Hart said. “When we hold team meetings, we shut the door for privacy. He meows so much, we let him in. He also likes to ride on the service carts we use to make rounds.”

Tom takes a breather next to the American flag.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

And because you’re wondering, yes, Tom has a litter box and it’s always very clean, thanks to dedicated employees who wouldn’t have it any other way, she said.

Tom shows some love to his pal, physician assistant Laura Hart.Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

Rizzo shared the poignant story of a veteran’s daughter who “did not like cats.” She shut the door when Tom was around, even though her dad really liked him, she said. "One day she stepped out of her father’s room for a few minutes and Tom went in," said Rizzo. "Then the cat came out and ‘went to get her,’ meowing at her until she returned to her father’s room. Minutes later her father died. The daughter was convinced Tom made sure she was with her father when he passed.”

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Tom takes a break to pose for the camera between "rounds."Courtesy of Salem VA Medical Center

Being so in tune with what some would call the supernatural or paranormal is not always easy for Tom. “After he’s been with someone who died, he needs to be by himself for a while. It’s tough on us, because everyone is always looking for him. We love him,” Hart said.

When Sharon Herndon’s father died at the center, Tom filled a special place in her family’s heart. The experience motivated the Roanoke, Virginia, woman to write a book in 2014, which she called “Tom the Angel Cat.” In it, she wrote that “Tom is the final salute to a job well done.”