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Canine Breast Cancer Survivor Comforts Cedars-Sinai Patients Facing the Same Disease

Los Angeles - Sept. 18, 2006 - When four-legged Margie reports for duty at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center her ID badge is always prominently displayed, dangling from her POOCH volunteer program scarf. The blue scarf also carries a pink ribbon pin that signifies breast cancer awareness. Margie the canine is, after all, a cancer survivor—an experience she gladly shares with women she visits in the hospital who face the same life-altering situation.

“People can’t believe that Margie had a mastectomy—they’ve never heard of that,” says volunteer coordinator Barbara Cowen, who schedules the dog’s visits with patients.

“When patients see Margie, they say, ‘Look at the little dog’s scars – and look how well she’s doing!’ It lifts their spirits. She’s like a bright light.”

One patient even called after discharge to request a picture of the Boston terrier-French bulldog mix that inspired her during a difficult time. “The woman had just looked at her own scar and felt so low,” recalls Margie’s owner, Jennifer Gendron, who was happy to send the photograph.

Gendron knew there was something special about Margie the moment they met four years ago. The black, white and brindle mix was a rescue dog with no known history, not even her age.

“She was like a little old lady, so lovable,” says Gendron, who discovered that her new family member was a ’mature’ 10-year-old, not the youngster she was told. “The name ‘Margie’ just fit.”

Gendron had had Margie for only a few months when she discovered small, hard lumps—“like BB’s,” she says--on the dog’s chest. A biopsy revealed cancer, and a mastectomy was scheduled.

“The vet removed as much as possible—it was major surgery,” explains Gendron, who says the incision stretched from neck to groin. “There are large scars on Margie’s belly and breast.”

Fortunately, the “sassy little thing” recovered quickly and was soon back with Gendron at her Beverly Hills spa, where Margie—known for her perky personality and colorful collection of vintage scarves—is a favorite with clients. In fact, it was a spa client who told Gendron about the POOCH program at Cedars-Sinai, which stands for Pets Offer Ongoing Care and Healing.

“I wanted to volunteer because Margie is such a people dog, a real ham,” explains Gendron.

When Margie came to the hospital for her “interview,” six months ago, Cowen fell in love with the dog and her story, she says. “Her unique situation seemed to make Margie a perfect fit to volunteer with cancer patients. ” Since then, Margie and Gendron have spent every other Wednesday visiting patients.

“The moment we arrive, Margie perks up,” Gendron says. “She plops on the bed, to lavish affection on the patients. It’s odd that she seems so calm and comfortable in the hospital. Sometimes she even falls asleep next to patients.”

Adds Gendron: “Margie seems to know that she’s needed, like it’s her job. When she comes home she’s exhausted and conks out. She gives the patients all she has.”

Margie is one of 45 dogs that volunteer, along with their owners, in Cedars-Sinai's POOCH program. First introduced in the rehabilitation unit in 1992, the program later expanded to the HIV/AIDS, medical and surgical, cardiology and pediatrics units.

“It takes a special dog with the right personality to volunteer to help hospital patients,” Cowen explains. “The dog should be outgoing with strangers and not easily distracted by noises or other commotion. And you need selfless owners, because they never get the attention that their dogs do.”

Gendron speaks for both herself and Margie (of course) when she says that volunteering with the Cedars-Sinai POOCH program “feels so good—like we’ve really contributed to someone’s day.”