For years, he comforted those at Salem Hospital. Now, Krycek heads for retirement

One of Salem Hospital’s most beloved volunteers is retiring, and he’s only 10 years old.

Krycek is a golden retriever who provides comfort and love to hospital patients and is the most recognized of the seven dogs who currently provide therapy services. He started his service in 2016.

Krycek’s appearance on the hospital floors always begins with oohs and ahs from staff, smiles from nearly everyone and the question, “Can I pet your dog?”

Alexander Smith bought Krycek from from a Wilsonville breeder when he was 8 weeks old. Smith never intended to create a therapy dog team, but when a friend who worked at the hospital commented on Krycek’s exceptional training and demeanor, he urged Smith to volunteer. 

“It’s often hard to tell who gets the most out of our visits – the patient, their family members, hospital staff, the dog’s handler or the dog himself!”

-Salem Hospital volunteer

The staff that screens volunteers had some initial concerns about the dog’s signature whiny greeting, and that nurses might think that a patient was in distress, but in time the whine brought joy to the floor because it announced the arrival of a canine-human love team.

Therapy dogs belong to volunteers who schedule their own hours at the hospital.  Like other hospital volunteers, most work eight hours a month and aren’t on call.

But in an unusual episode, Smith and Krycek were called to the hospital’s Emergency Department to respond to a trauma in which several people were being treated and one person had died. 

On arrival, the team was directed to the chapel, where Krycek instinctively headed to the front pew to comfort a sobbing woman – a close friend of the deceased. The pair stayed with family and friends of the victims for 40 minutes.  Even nurses were sobbing and hugging Krycek for support.

“As we were leaving the hospital, Krycek looked like he’d run 14 miles,” Smith said. “We got outside and he threw up. I was still shaking, but I knew we’d done the right thing by being there. I wondered if all that energy would hurt him. Would it age him quicker? Is this really the right work for me?”

In another instance, they were asked to visit a fragile patient scheduled for a heart procedure. Her heart rate had increased, she was anxious and they couldn’t proceed until she stabilized.

Krycek jumped onto her bed where they laid together for nearly an hour. The patient’s heart rate normalized and she headed to the operating room. Her family asked the team to return the following night.

“I think you saved my mom’s life,” the patient’s daughter told Smith.

Smith, 34, is a construction worker born in St. Petersburg, Russia, who languished in an orphanage until the age of 4, when he was adopted by a couple from Silverton.  Malnourished and suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, his adoptive parents brought him home with a younger girl, and they were raised together – the couple’s only children. 

When he was 15, Smith’s parents took him to St. Petersburg to see the orphanage and explore the city of his birth.

Therapy dog teams at Salem Hospital are certified by accredited training programs, then screened by hospital staff before they begin work.  They visit many departments, including medical floors, patients who have had surgery, the pediatric unit and patients in the Emergency Department. 

As one volunteer explained, “It’s often hard to tell who gets the most out of our visits – the patient, their family members, hospital staff, the dog’s handler or the dog himself!”

Therapy dog teams can be found working at Oregon State Hospital, West Valley Hospital and with hospice clients of Willamette Vital Health.  Children read to therapy dogs at Salem Public Library, and before Covid, teams regularly visited a special education classroom at Brush College Elementary School in west Salem.

Even great careers must come to an end, and Smith recently announced that Krycek would retire in July. One nurse, referred to the dog’s characteristic whine, observed that “he’s losing his squeaker.”

But his energy is waning. His back legs are shaky, and sometimes he hesitates to get back up after lying down. He’s signaling to Smith that his physical ability to do the work isn’t what it once was.

In his retirement letter to the Volunteer Services Department at Salem Hospital, Smith wrote:

“It is with great pride, gratitude and a gentle whine filled with sadness that Krycek and I announce his retirement. Throughout his 600 hours of service at Salem Hospital he has brought his pawsitive attitude and trademark empathy to be the kind of everyday hero that we all needed, especially during these hard several years. He has offered staff, volunteers and patients an empathetic ear and flashed that characteristic smile, often while strutting his way through the hospital in costume.”

Smith continued, “We have enjoyed being present and grounded with you in the smallest and biggest moments in life, particularly during these days when the future can feel so overwhelming and uncertain.  Krycek is the best companion I have ever walked through life with and it has been an honor to share that companionship with all of you.”

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Eric Schuman of Salem is a retired physician associate whose interests include pet therapy and photography.