Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cathy Robbins and her five-year-old therapy dog, Finn, would visit multiple patients at Riddle Hospital in Pennsylvania a few days a week. They would share moments together comforting patients and their families — like the coma patient who physically shifted at Finn’s touch, or the patient who briefly woke from a coma to talk about Finn with Cathy.
One day in mid-March day, everything changed.
Cathy and Finn were asked to visit the ICU staff, who were struggling as they watched COVID patients die daily without family members beside them.
She had to work to stay calm as they entered the hospital, where staffers had spent four hours cleaning and disinfecting the break room Finn would greet staff in. She didn’t want Finn to notice her nervousness and feed off her negative emotional energy.
The medical staffers were happy to see Finn, a staff favorite they hadn’t seen for weeks after volunteer services had been suspended. One or two staffers were allowed in at a time while social distancing.
Most of the visits were happy, with doctors and nurses saying hello and petting Finn. For others, there were layers of sadness as they shared tears. Finn walked up to one nurse and touched noses with her. That was the moment Cathy was grateful that she could do this.
It was emotional. It was happy. It was sad. Finn and Cathy stayed through it all.
“I didn’t know that that was going to be our last time in there until all of this is over.”
Inventing a New Way to Connect
When it became clear that taking Finn to the hospital was too risky as it could jeopardize people’s safety, Cathy began browsing a Facebook group for therapy dogs to find ideas to help patients from afar. She saw how other therapy dogs were interacting with patients by sending cards or videos. Cathy thought: ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a giant life-sized Finn around the hospital?’
So she had her sign-making friend, Joey, create the first Finn sign: a simple cutout of the mottled black and white mixed-breed dog Cathy rescued four years prior.
Cathy’s first glimpse of Finn was when she called him the “cutest puppy she’d ever seen” when his photo popped up in her Facebook feed. When she learned 11-week-old Finn was set to be put down, she made sure to get him on a truck that transported him across multiple states. When Finn was lifted out of the truck, Cathy says it was love at first sight.
“I always think, ‘Oh my God, what would have happened if I hadn’t seen that picture?'” Cathy said. “It’s almost like it was fate. Like I was meant to find him and he was meant to find me.”
Though Cathy hadn’t had a therapy dog before, Finn was super smart as a one-year-old puppy and calm for his age. When he was three, he took the test with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and became an official therapy dog.
As soon as Finn’s therapy dog vest is on, Cathy says he knows it’s time to go to work. His demeanor changes; he becomes more serious, more calm, more gentle. Even when stretchers are rattling past him, nothing rattles him.
“I see how much joy he brings to patients, to staff members, and I just can’t imagine not having him and not doing this work with him,” said Cathy.
Though Finn can’t travel to the hospital in person, Flat Finn can’t stop traveling: he’s moved all over the hospital, visiting the radiology lab, all nursing units, and even an ice cream truck. Staffers don him with surgical gloves, hairnets, and masks; dress him as a medical professional (he’s even a “Lab” tech); and disseminate selfies and TikToks with him on social media.
It makes Cathy light up inside each time staffers text her photos of Flat Finn and when nurse managers tell her about the antics the staff got into with Flat Finn. As heartbreaking as it is for her to see what the medical staff is going through, it’s heartwarming to see their reactions to Flat Finn. Seeing the staff members happier because of Flat Finn makes Cathy overjoyed.
Cathy, who has worked at Riddle Hospital for 19 years and is at the hospital most days as the senior executive assistant to the president, is constantly asked when she’ll bring Finn in again. And while staff members understand why they won’t be seeing Finn for a while, it doesn’t resolve their longing.
“Now’s when they really need him. Now’s really when the patients need him,” said Cathy. “And it’s just so sad that I can’t bring him in. Even though Flat Finn isn’t 3D-Finn, it’s still something.”
Flat Finn has been such a hit that Riddle Hospital created an edition of Flat Finn with its logo that greets visitors in the front lobby. There are now multiple Flat Finns floating throughout the hospital.
Like many hospitals nationwide, Riddle Hospital has restricted access for only patients and staffers. Flat Finn is only seen in person by hospital staff and patients, but he’s been shared widely over social media with people commenting positively about what a great idea it was.
“Even though he’s not there, he’s still making them smile,” Cathy said.