Bear the cat retires from hospital after 7 years
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Over the course of seven years, Bear the cat spent nearly 200 hours in the hospital, bringing comfort to anyone and everyone in need.
He curled up on the laps of chemo patients during hours-long treatment, sat next to patients suffering traumatic injuries in the emergency room and consoled children in lobbies waiting for their mothers to come out of surgery.
There were some patients with whom Bear spent many an hour who made full recoveries and others who lost their battle with a devastating illness.
The moment Bear walked through the double doors of UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center on his leash and harness, the hospital staff rejoiced with calls of “Bear’s here!”
He also comforted and brought joy to the staff — those who spend their days confronting sickness and death and comforting others.
Bear made friends wherever he went, while his human, Jan Theadore, searched the hospital for people in need of a cat visit. If a patient had allergies or didn’t like cats — they would signal that, and Theadore would move on.
But there weren’t many who refused a visit from Bear.
After all, who could say no to the big cat’s wise green eyes, soft charcoal gray coat and steadfast serenity?
Theadore first knew Bear had a gift when she brought the cat to visit her ailing adopted mother. Bear immediately curled up with her in the bed. It was clear Bear knew she was ill and needed comfort, Theadore described.
Now, after years spent in the hospital, Theadore has witnessed many times that, “the sicker the individual is, the better he is at curling up.”
And Theadore is the type of person who wouldn’t allow Bear’s gift not to be shared with others in need.
Bear is one of about four cats that have gone through the Heeling Friends program, which holds pets to rigorous standards and an intensive training process.
Theadore will never forget when she and her husband first began the inquiry into whether Bear would qualify — with the composed cat sitting amid a group of hyperactive terriers and goofy Golden Retrievers.
Bear passed every test with flying colors. He was truly unflappable, cool under pressure, always easy going, friendly and amendable. And that was exactly what he needed to be to be one of only four human-pet teams allowed in the emergency room.
Bear and Theadore sat with people after snowmobile and car accidents, including one badly injured and severely depressed young woman who later wrote a thank you letter saying she didn’t know if she would have gotten through it without Bear.
And, it goes without saying, the ER doctors and nurses grew to love Bear.
The visits did take a toll on Bear, Theadore observed. He would only last about an hour and a half, and then the normally playful cat would need time to rest and be alone once they got home.
She’s heard of other comfort animals being exhausted by their time spent with sick patients.
But, as Bear absorbed the grief and pain of patients, so did Theadore, who was always at his side. She saw more than one patient — including close friends — die. One woman, who Theadore knew well, was diagnosed with Glioblastoma. Theadore described her as incredibly positive. “If anyone could beat it, it would be her,” she said. “That was the hardest thing to watch.”
But Theadore and Bear kept going to every treatment. And why did she put herself through that?
“Because she lit up when she saw us coming,” Theadore answered, without hesitation.
“When you are able to bring some comfort or some peace to someone in the cancer center, and they smile when they see you, how can you not go?”
And, if Theadore told a cancer patient they would be there for every chemo treatment, she was.
For Theadore, the visits to the hospital weren’t just about helping others get through difficult times.
After her husband died very suddenly and unexpectedly in 2015, the time she spent visiting patients “got me through horrible grief,” she said.
And for all Bear gives, he has a very good life. Theadore loves her cats beyond measure and provides them the best life imaginable.
But it wasn’t always so for Bear.
Rescued just in time from euthanasia because of a white tuft deemed undesirable to the breeder, the Russian blue cat found a home with Theadore in 2008.
She knew she wanted the cat, but had to wait out an ice storm to get him, and was warned he may not make a good house cat because of abuse.
He was in bad shape when he arrived by plane from Oklahoma to California, Theadore said, and was ravaged with fleas and ear mites. He had never been out of a crate.
Every time she rescues a cat, Theadore changes the name. “He just looked like a Bear.”
The breeder did ultimately lose his license, she said. In the following years, Bear overcame a diabetes diagnosis.
Bear’s retirement from the hospital was not exactly planned nor welcomed. At first, Theadore was told that UCHealth’s policy had changed regarding cats, but that Bear would be grandfathered in. However, he would no longer be allowed in patient rooms. He would still be able to hang out in communal areas — lobbies, waiting areas and the sports medicine area. She was okay with that.
Then came heartbreaking news that Bear wouldn’t be allowed in the hospital at all. And Theadore still doesn’t know precisely what about the policy changed.
Bear goes through the same testing, cleaning and grooming routine as the dogs before being allowed in.
UCHealth Communications Specialist Lindsey Reznicek wasn’t able to get a definitive answer about any specifics of a policy change. But, she did point to a nationwide trend in adopting “best practices” of not allowing cats. According to an article in Healthcare Business & Technology, “Cats and kittens shouldn’t be allowed in an animal-therapy program for various reasons. Cats typically can’t be trained as well as dogs can. They also pose a bigger infection risk: Cats are more likely to bite and scratch humans than trained dogs are, and cat injuries tend to spread more bacteria.
One more reason to avoid having cats in a hospital: People are generally more likely to be allergic to cats than dogs.”
According to guidelines form the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, only dogs should participate in hospital therapy programs.
Theadore is familiar with overcoming adversity. She is sad but looking forward. She and Bear are going to visit some other places as part of the Heeling Friends program, like Casey’s Pond and the Mountain Village Montessori Charter School.
On Sunday, in honor of his years of service, Bear was blessed by Pastor Craig Henningfield, of Concordia Lutheran Church, who spent time with Theadore and Bear visiting patients.
The pastor proclaimed “Angels surround us in many forms, including animals,” Theadore said.
Pema Martinez, a friend of Theadore’s, attended the blessing.
Bear sat through eight chemo treatments with Martinez after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Whenever Bear and Jan showed up, Martinez said, she felt comfortable and at peace. And more than anything, she felt hope.
“They give me a lot of hope — that I will be OK,” she said.
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