Our Kind of People

It’s hard to have a bad day around Mary, Bella and Abby

Mary Pecoul is one of those tireless people. She’s retired, but not exactly retiring.

Her charges, two 5-year-old Shih Tzus, may seem a little sleepy but that’s just their personalities.

“They’re doorstops,” Pecoul said as her two pet therapy dogs lounged on the settee in a consultation room at Garden Park Medical Center.

That’s about all the dogs, Abby and Bella, have to do.

When they aren’t in a patient room soothing an anxious or otherwise down human, they’re at a desk just to the right of the main entrance of Garden Park. And there must be something about a pair of overly calm fluff balls that makes them irresistible to people. A steady stream of folks walk by: “Hey. How you doing? So pretty. So polite.”

They do make the job look easy, but if it weren’t for Pecoul, they wouldn’t have a job at all.

“I have always wanted to do this,” she said. “Go and visit in nursing homes, visiting the hospitals.”

Her arrival on the Coast, after she retired from the human resources and payroll department of the Times-Picayune, took a little serendipity as well. Her home in Chalmette, Louisiana, was hit by a car. Twice. One time the car went airborne and crashed through the roof. The second time was enough for her husband.

“My husband said, I’m moving with or without you. And we just took a ride over here. We liked it. Didn’t even think about it.”

Then Mary found Visiting Pet Teams of South Mississippi and knew she was in the right place.

She had a Shih Tzu, Dixie, a sweet-natured dog she thought would be perfect. Still, she wanted a professional opinion so she took Dixie to a recruitment class.

“The woman there said, ‘We told you not to bring your dog and I knew someone was going to bring a dog,’” she said. And she’s laughing again. Mary likes to laugh. “She tells that story at every meeting.”

Turns out Dixie was perfect, a 22-step evaluation found, and Mary was trained to handle her as a therapy dog and a second career began.

Quite a run

She started bringing Dixie a day or two a week. Two days became three and three became four. Then she was coming every day.

You could say her second career has blossomed. She joined the hospital auxiliary, then became its president. She also takes the dogs to Memorial Hospital at Gulfport and to nursing homes.

Since 2010, she has logged over 14,000 volunteer hours, 5,000 of them with pet therapy dogs. She was named Volunteer of the Year twice by Garden Park, and once each by Pet Teams and the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of Harrison County. She had the most volunteer hours for RSVP in 2015. She and her dogs were recipients of the U.S. Presidential Service Award each year from 2010 to 2017.

“We are blessed and honored to have someone like Mary helping us care for our patients and supporting our efforts,” Garden Park wrote when she won the Volunteer of the Year honor a second time.

They also travel to libraries where children read to the dogs.

“They won’t read to adults but they’ll read to dogs,” she said. “Dogs don’t judge.”

Mary, of course, says she’s the one who is blessed.

“It comes back to you tenfold,” she said. “Words cannot express how that feels.”

And the dogs?

“They love it,” she said.

Which bring us to the only sad chapter of the story. Dixie, as is the case with most pets, didn’t outlive the rest of her family.

“I cried,” Mary said. “The whole hospital cried.”

She cried, she mourned, but she didn’t give up. They bought Miss Abby. Then a lady called her and said she was going to have to give up Bella and asked if she would like to take her.

She said yes

That was an easy answer to guess.

“I told my husband, we don’t even have to see the dog,” she said.

So there they are, Bella and Abby, waiting just inside the door at Garden Park on a summer afternoon, waiting for whatever comes their way.

“Walmart has a greeter, why can’t we have a greeter,” she said. But they don’t get to sit there like a couple of doorstops long.

Everyone who passes by has to scratch them, rub their ears. And the dogs have to wiggle and wag in return.

“We used to have comment cards and it was a joke,” Mary said. “The dogs have more comments than the employees.”

But it’s the patients that give Mary, Abby and Bella the most satisfaction.

“No words can express what animals and children do for people,” Mary said.

In a video Mary keeps on her phone, a nursing home patient snuggles with one of the dogs. As soon as the dog leaves, the woman drifts away.

“She goes right back into a world of her own,” Mary said. “But you can bring this person out into reality for about five minutes.”

When Randy Rogers, who became chief executive officer of the hospital in March, was getting a sneak peek at the hospital, the dogs and Mary helped him make up his mind. He had been trying to get a program going at the hospital he came from.

“It’s really hard to get these going,” he said. “People don’t understand, they’re like, they’re animals, this is a hospital. They’re confused by it.

“Mary’s great. It takes leadership. And not every hospital has a Mary.”

They have become one of the perks of working at Garden Park as well.

“Especially the employees who are having a bad day,” she said. “They say, I’m having a bad day and I need some puppy love. And they come and hug the puppies and say, ‘OK, I’m good to go.’”

About the series:

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.

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