Waikato Hospital has 215 incredible and selfless volunteers – but just one, who with her family cat provides pet therapy to Waikato Hospital’s Older Persons and Rehabilitation patients.
Gill Ballard (67) retired from her reception role for the Older Persons and Rehabilitation service in November last year, but hasn’t completely cut ties and now brings Fergusson, her 10kg cat in one afternoon a week, to visit the patients.
“One day [the Waikato Hospital volunteers’ coordinator] Chris Atkinson was at my desk and the conversation turned to the idea of pets visiting,” says Gill.
“The first thing I thought of was my Fergusson, who had only weeks before spent two days lying on a sheepskin at the Pet Expo being stroked by hundreds of people.
“I thought he could be an ideal candidate as he fulfilled all the requirements – placid, used to a harness, vaccinated and he always has his claws trimmed and is flea free – I brought him for a trial run and he was a huge success.”
Fergusson is a Maine Coon – the largest breed of domestic cat and at 10kg still has two years to grow.
He and Gill spend most of their time visiting the OPR wards, but Fergusson also has a big fan club in ward 12.
“We also often visit other wards when staff and visitors we have met in the corridors ask us to visit particular patients who they think would benefit.”
Gill said she loves seeing the difference Fergusson makes to the days of those who meet him.
“I am always told by the staff of the difference he makes in cheering up patients who may be a bit down. And the patients always say how much they appreciate it.
“The elderly people in OPR talk about their pets they have had over their lifetimes, or that they miss from home. They start to tell me stories of when they were young – life on the farm 60 years ago, and sometimes they just want someone to listen and Fergusson seems to be a good ice breaker.”
She said one patient who has been in hospital for almost a year (which is how long Fergusson has been visiting) and the pair have built “a really cool friendship”.
“It always amazes me just how he reacts to the patients, which is the same way he reacts to my special needs son at home.
“He climbs onto the bed and just lies by their side waiting to be stroked and have sweet nothings whispered in his ear.”
Gill said if the patients are attached to any tubes or machines, she sits Fergusson on her knee and he automatically puts his feet on the side of the bed and his head down as if to say “come on, stroke me”.
Although she says, at home he is not particularly cuddly, except with her son.
“Every time we visit, lots of people get out their smartphones in the corridors and photograph him – he must be the most photographed cat in Hamilton,” she laughs.
Gill said she has decided not to show Fergusson at cat shows anymore, as she finds it far more enjoyable and fulfilling to share him with Waikato Hospital patients instead.
“I may have retired but my volunteering activities give me the sense of still being able to contribute in a worthwhile way.
“It’s most important that you can choose to do what you enjoy, without any stress and it is a great way to meet people. I’m not ready to sit down and do nothing yet.”
Gill also volunteers 3-4 hours every day at the Latter Day Saints Church History Centre in Templeview as their photographer, and says she thoroughly enjoys the opportunity her volunteering gives her to add an extra dimension to her life.
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