How did you come to own pigs?
I have always loved animals and reading about animal intelligence – and my interest was piqued by a Portuguese Water Dog I had who was super smart. Everything I read mentioned how smart pigs are. After doing more research, I came to the realization that I needed a potbellied pig in my life.
My job as a palliative medicine specialist is usually heavy and sad. Pigs are just funny animals, and I wanted to experience them firsthand. Now, I have three potbellied buddies living in my house that make me laugh. My first was Zumi, who is now a licensed therapy pig, and two “foster failures,” Stanley and Cleveland. Stanley and Zumi are bonded together, they snuggle and squabble like an old married couple.
Pigs are amazing animals, and not everything you hear about them is true. They’re clean, they’re easy to potty train, and they only roll in the mud to cool off because they can’t sweat. The expression “sweating like a pig” is totally inaccurate.
How do three potbellied pigs fit in your house?
They’re just like my dogs. A petsitter comes during the day to let the dogs and the pigs out into the backyard. They’ll graze and come back when they’re called. At night, they sleep in their beds, covered up with blankets.
The average, full-grown potbellied pig weighs between 100 and 200 pounds, which sounds big, but is really no bigger than a medium-sized dog. Pigs have very short legs and are not very long, so they’re just dense. I call them “kegs with legs.”
How did Zumi get her name?
She was named after Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was the youngest person to serve as Chief of Naval Operations. And, coincidentally, Admiral Zumwalt was also instrumental in lobbying Congress to establish the National Bone Marrow Registry – a fact I learned from Navneet Majhail, MD. The admiral’s son had lymphoma, so he saw the need for establishing a large bone marrow registry.
When did you realize the potential for bringing Zumi in to help your patients?
I remember the actual day it happened: I had a patient who was very dear to me and had just gotten news that her pancreatic cancer had advanced and her clinicians were going to stop treatment. She was crying in my office and I took her hand and said, “It’s scary when you stop treatment, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up hope.” I was starting to cry too and, honestly, to stop myself from breaking down inf front of a patient, I said, “I’m not going to let you leave on this sad note. You know I just got a pig, right?” I showed her a video of Zumi, who was a baby at the time, slurping yogurt. My patient started to laugh, I started to laugh, and we laughed together until we had our tears in our eyes. It was a powerful moment when I felt a deep connection with the patient.
Dr. Dobbie with Zumi, who became a
licensed therapy pig in 2019.
We tend to think that we have to be completely serious and humorless with patients who are facing a terminal illness, but here we were, having a moment of emotional release laughing at a funny video.
Beginning with that, I started sharing more and more of my pets with my patients. It was always well received. It gave my patients something to talk about unrelated to their disease. It got to the point where, I came into a clinic visit and before I could ask how the patient was doing, they would say, “Wait, first I want to see the latest pig video.”
Sharing those photos and videos made me human in their eyes – not just a white coat. Over the years, I’ve shared a lot of wonderful moments with patients through my pets.
I recall one older woman with head and neck cancer who had lost the ability to speak and communicated by writing on a dry-erase board. When she decided to stop treatment, she wrote “I think it’s time for me now to go to hospice. You’ve given me the courage to do that.” Then, out of the blue, she wrote, “Bring the pig to my funeral.” We both just started to laugh.
Zumi can help people relax when they are scared and can help me bond with younger patients who do not want to be in the hospital. I’ve learned a lot about being a doctor through those interactions with my patients.
Zumi has also helped with fundraising efforts at Cleveland Clinic. In the inaugural year of our VeloSano event to raise money for cancer research, Zumi was the top virtual rider (raising money instead of biking), which everyone got a kick out of. We used to say, “You don’t even have to be a person to raise money for cancer research. If a pig can do it, you can do it.” I also think my patients felt like Zumi and I were not only helping support them through their illness, but we were going the extra mile to help support research, so that we might be able to help others with their cancer.
How has Zumi acted as your therapy animal?
When you’re in a job like palliative medicine, talking a lot about hard things, the risk for burnout is high. I avoid burnout through my animals. When I go home, my pets are always happy to see me. The time I spend with them is restorative and quiet – at least for me, the animals might get a little loud.
Even using social media to follow funny animal accounts is a good five-minute mental health break in the middle of a busy day.
My pets have been pivotal and important in helping me maintain my resilience, giving me something to look forward to in my downtime.
I’ve heard the same from other providers at Cleveland Clinic. I remember when I was seeing a patient with myeloma and I told my colleague, her myeloma specialist, “Listen, our goals of care are clear. I have your patient’s pain in control. I literally just go to the ICU every day and show her pig videos. I’m really not doing anything at this point, but I just wanted to give you an update.” He wrote back, “Pig videos? I need pig videos.” So, I also share with our staff who are having a tough or hectic day. They will sometimes get a surprise pig video on their phone. So many staff have told me, “You have no idea how much that brightened my day.” We need that levity in medicine.