During her nearly seven months of going to the Don and Dana Myers Cancer Center in Seymour for treatments, Donna Nease made a friend for life.
While she enjoyed talking to the staff and other patients at the center, the Scottsburg woman also gained a canine companion.
Nease, who has Hodgkin lymphoma and also deals with lupus and arthritis, rang the center’s bell to signify her last chemotherapy treatment Nov. 6 and is now in remission.
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That was a happy day, but it also was sad because it meant she no longer would be going there and seeing Tucker, a bulldog that’s a registered therapy animal.
“He was a great help to me,” Nease said. “When I was having a bad day, he always made me feel better just by seeing him. He always came to me when I said his name. He always wanted me to rub his butt. He loved that. He would go around to everybody, and it was like he was telling everybody hello, but he always stopped at me to rub his butt. He was my buddy.”
One time, Nease fell outside the office of Tucker’s owner, Chelsie Bentz, the clinical oncology pharmacist at the cancer center.
“She jumped up to help, and Tucker jumped up and was coming to me,” Nease said. “Chelsie almost didn’t get to him before he got out. He moved so fast. She was trying to catch him so he wouldn’t get out. He was coming to me.”
Tucker also has impacted other people’s lives at the cancer center, including patients, staff and visitors.
“I think having therapy dogs should be at all cancer centers. It really does help,” Nease said. “Tucker is my buddy for life.”
Bentz became the center’s first clinical oncology pharmacist in April 2018 and received approval from Schneck Medical Center to bring Tucker to work with her a couple of days a week.
As she works in her office or at a desk near the patients, Tucker is free to stay nearby or wander around the building.
He recently celebrated his 100th visit since becoming a registered therapy animal. For that accomplishment, a new title, American Kennel Club therapy dog advanced, will go on his record, and he will receive a patch.
“It’s a lot to ask of him, but if I leave in the morning and don’t take him to work, he throws a fit. He stands there, and he whines,” Bentz said. “If you go get his harness and you clip it on, he’s like, ‘OK, let’s go’ like it’s his job. He just knows, ‘I’m going to work.’”
Tucker is Bentz’s third therapy bulldog since 2014.
Her love of bulldogs started when she was a junior at Butler University in Indianapolis, which has Bulldogs as its mascot. Her mother, Pat Bentz, had gotten a bulldog, and Chelsie decided to get one for her off-campus apartment.
As they got a couple of other bulldogs, they realized some have health issues.
In January 2013, they started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Bulldogs with Special Needs, and created a Facebook page to connect with other owners of bulldogs with special needs around the country.
The organization’s primary purpose is to serve as an advocate for those wanting to share and learn more about the care and support needed to provide a loving home to bulldogs with ongoing medical concerns as a result of congenital malformations, deafness, blindness, life-changing accidents and the aging process.
It also is a financial sponsor for special needs bulldogs that otherwise would have to forgo medical care and equipment due to costs unable to be met by the owner. Proceeds from fundraising activities are utilized by Bulldogs with Special Needs for such surgeries and equipment.
On Jan. 18, 2014, Chelsie’s special needs bulldog, Tripp, passed the Pet Partners therapy animal program test to be a registered therapy dog. He, however, suffered from pulmonic stenosis and only lived 14 months, so he and Chelsie only got to do one official visit as a pet therapy team.
Chelsie then got Ty, and he was therapy dog for about a year before retiring to be a performance bulldog focusing on agility competitions. He’s now the fastest bulldog in the AKC, Chelsie said.
Tucker was the next bulldog to come along. He was born with a cleft palate and had to have it fixed. He was fed by syringe for the first five months of his life.
On June 11, 2017, at only 15 months old, Tucker passed the test with Chelsie to be a registered pet therapy team.
“The lady said when she passed him, he was the youngest she had ever passed at that high of a level,” Chelsie said. “We can go visit any place that would have us as a pet therapy team.”
Tucker did about half of his 100 visits at the hospital in Madison before Chelsie landed a job at the cancer center.
“I do my thing. He knows and goes and does his thing,” she said. “If he wants to see patients, he’s here while I work. When I bring him, he just kind of gets the run-of-the-mill. He does what he wants. Everybody loves Tucker. As a matter of fact, I get people that will ask me, ‘Where’s Tucker?’ … They really love Tucker. He’s a neat little feller.”
Tucker also once nearly died from a gastrointestinal obstruction, so he has overcome a lot. Chelsie said that means he can relate to the patients, letting them know they can get through their struggles.
“They truly are kind of carrying the same cross,” she said. “They don’t have cancer, but the cool part is that the patients can kind of see, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t actually perfect, either, but they are still here, they are still pushing on.”
While some may consider bulldogs “couch potatoes,” Chelsie has seen what they can do, from agility competitions to pet therapy.
“What’s cool is taking these special needs guys and being like, ‘Look what they can do,’” she said. “There are ones out there that definitely are very active and they are fun and they are really good at what they do. They are overcoming the odds, they are superseding what anybody ever expected of them and they are doing it well, so therefore, give all of them a chance. They all deserve a chance.”
She gave Tucker a chance, and now, he’s making an impact at the cancer center.
“There is a huge amount of how proud I am of what he has overcome to be here to be with these patients through something that they are going through,” Chelsie said.
“He’s really uplifting because he takes their mind off of something,” she said. “He’s not there expecting them to cry on him. … He’s really there to give them something else to focus on that’s positive. Then if they listen long enough to hear his story, that’s when they definitely get that extra level of how cool he is and how if he can do it, they can do it.”
Chelsie and Tucker receive a lot of accolades for what they do, and she said having him and other bulldogs around makes her life better. Her third bulldog at home is Marshall, who is deaf and does agility competitions.
“Giving a special needs bulldog a chance to go and turn around and give that to a patient, they make me better as a person,” she said. “I really am a better person because of my dogs.”