It's hard to watch a family member suffer from a serious illness or injury, and harder still to cope with a loved-one’s death. When that family member has fur, paws, wings or claws, people sometimes fret over openly displaying grief. That’s when Christina Bach, director of Clinical Social Work and Pet Bereavement Services at the Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital, steps in.
Bach holds a master’s degree in social work from Penn and a post-master’s certificate in end-of-life care from Smith College. She began her career in 1996 as an oncology social worker for HUP, where she counseled patients and families for 11 years. In 2007, she moved across campus to the School of Veterinary Medicine to become its fourth social worker and bereavement counselor. The Vet School was the first in the nation to establish a program to help humans deal with their pets’ crises.
Coincidentally, when Bach sat down to speak with the Current about her job, one of her three pet beagles—8-year-old Gus—was in the hospital dealing with a serious case of low platelets.
[Editor’s note: Two days after this interview, Gus was well enough to return home. Bach is pictured with her two-year-old beagle, Finn.]
Q. How do people react when you tell them what you do for a living?
A. I was at the Phillies game recently and the people next to us asked what I do. I said I am a social worker at the veterinary hospital at Penn. There is always this look of perplexity, sometimes there’s laughter, and people always say, ‘A social worker for dogs?’ Then I explain it’s not for the animals, it’s for the people attached to those animals. It’s just like any other family member in the hospital. And then, they get it, and they usually think it’s cool.
Q. Before you came to the vet hospital you were doing social work at HUP for many years. What did you do there, and why did you decide to change focus?
A. I was doing social work, and have always been involved in helping people with end-of-life issues. I worked with HIV patients and cancer patients at HUP. While I was working at HUP I lost two dogs of my own, and I don’t think I could do this job had I not experienced pet loss myself. When I was looking to do something different, this position turned out to be a perfect fit.
Q. What differences do you see between your previous position and this one?
A. Not that many. The big difference is that I don’t have to deal with insurance companies here.
Q. What is your background with animals?
A. I’ve had dogs my whole life. My parents actually got a dog as a wedding gift. They had dogs before they had kids. I grew up with dogs. Dogs were my siblings when I was growing up. They were there when I got home from school. Both of my parents worked, and the dogs were there. They would help me with my homework, hang out and watch soap operas with me, take care of me when I got sick. As soon as I could get my own dog, I did. That was when I was in graduate school here at Penn. Max was a ‘buskie,’ a beagle and huskie mix. I rescued him from a shelter in Ohio. He got me through graduate school, and was with me when I got my first job, and my first house. What I’m saying is, our pets share important milestones with us, and sometimes they are the most stable part of our lives. People come and go, we move, but the animals stay with us.
Q. You said your experience with pet loss prepared you for this job. Can you explain how?
A. I adopted Molly and Gus, who is in the hospital now [see Editor’s Note]. Then I lost Max and Molly. In a couple of years they both passed away and it was really challenging ... I came home from work one day and Max had died. It was tragic, and sudden and scary, and I asked myself, ‘What happened? When do I get another dog? Do I get another dog?’ All those things, I know now, are very common feelings people experience when they have a sick pet or they’ve lost a pet.
Q. Do you mind talking about your dog Gus’s situation?
A. He is my oldest dog and was fine two days ago. He is very sick now, in the hospital here at Ryan. It’s hard to see my dog in a cage looking very sad and sick ... It’s a little nerve-wracking and scary. This does absolutely re-center the essence of my job for me, the urgency and desperation and the confusing emotions that I see in clients all the time ... Experiencing it again myself, it brings me back to knowing that this is a really hard place to be emotionally.
Q. Your job is not only to deal with bereavement; it’s also to deal with people going through illness with their animals, correct?
A. There are a lot of facets to the job ... I’m a social worker for people attached to these animals, in any phase of illness or trauma—an animal who has been hit by a car, who has been in a house fire, or the animal diagnosed with cancer or a potentially life-threatening illness, broken legs, broken hips. And of course the process of euthanasia, which is really hard. I am able to help people with making that decision, as well as being present with them during the procedure. And I do a lot of follow-up in terms of bereavement, sometimes over the phone. People call us from all over the place, other hospitals, from across the country.
Q. You run a regular bereavement support group here, don’t you?
A. We have a pet loss support group that meets twice a month and is open to anyone regardless whether they are clients here at the hospital or not. It’s a very robust, well-attended, very useful group. [The next session is scheduled for Nov. 23, from 6-7:30 p.m. There is no fee, but participants must call 215-898-4529 to register.]
Q. Do you run any other special programs?
A. I’m also responsible for running our Vet Pets program for faculty, staff and students here at Penn Vet. We take our certified therapy dogs and visit the Ronald McDonald House each week. We have about 35 animals and owners certified to come. We are the only animal therapy that goes into the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House ... It’s a wonderful program for kids and families facing life-threatening illnesses. They can relax and have a good time with the dogs. It helps to reduce anxiety and stress ... Usually we try to take five or six dogs per week.
This semester we are going to be doing canine visits during Reading Days at a couple of the College Houses. We’ve partnered with Rodin House and one of the lower Quad houses, and we are going to take the therapy dogs for a study break to help the students de-stress. It’s something that is on the upswing at a lot of colleges and universities.
Q. How are you brought into a case? Do people ask for your help, or do the vets ask you to get involved?
A. It can happen in many ways. If you are a client here, you get my services. If you want to see me while you are here, I can talk about what is going on with your dog, or cat, or bird. The client can call me, or the clinicians can call me and say there is a client who is having a hard time. It’s a lot of crisis intervention.
Q. What does that entail?
A. Diffusing the situation. For example, we had a guy who came in from central Pennsylvania because his vet suspected his dog had a brain tumor. On his way here, his dog had four seizures in the car. It’s a terrifying thing to see your dog go through. When he came in the dog was in obvious distress. It was terrifying for the owner and he was screaming and yelling in the emergency room. So I was called in to help calm him down a little. I reassured him, talked to him about what is going on and tried to diffuse the situation. There is so much emotion. For so many people, their animals mean so much to them, and a lot of times they just want their feelings to be validated.
Q. Has the economy changed how far people will go to treat their pets?
A. Yes. We’ve had a lot of clients recently who are really struggling with having to make decisions about their pets’ lives based on financial issues. Two or three years ago, people had no problem handing over their credit cards and saying, ‘Do whatever you need to.’ But with people being out of work, and losing their homes and things like that, it’s changed. We focus on telling people it’s not a reflection of how much they love Fluffy or Spot. It is just the reality of the situation. The guilt our clients feel is sometimes overwhelming.
Originally published on November 12, 2009