Munroe Falls: Tell Katherine to go protect her mom, and the diminutive Jack Russell terrier jumps to Dolores Starcher’s side. The companionship is one of the few pleasures the 75-year-old woman, who suffers from progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, can still enjoy.
Not only is the pint-sized pooch Starcher’s protector, she is also her buddy and a constant source of pleasure, said Susan Oblisk, Starcher’s daughter.
“She calls Katherine her little angel,” Oblisk said.
Starcher, who is a patient in Summa Health System’s Palliative Care and Hospice Services, is able to keep the dog by her side because she is enrolled in Summa’s Pet Peace of Mind program that assists terminally ill people and their pets.
Pets are a lifeline and the reason people get out of their beds on some days, said Lori Flesher, a licensed social worker and bereavement coordinator for Summa.
“Pets need us as much as we need them and they give us so much back. During a serious illness a person may experience physical and emotional changes that may make other people uncomfortable and so others may pull away or treat the person who is ill differently. But pets stick with us no matter what by providing unconditional love, listening to us and providing physical contact,” she said.
Kathy Bailey of Cuyahoga Falls, a volunteer in the program since its inception in 2009, visits Starcher and brings food for Katherine, who was named after actor Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The program, which is funded in part by a $5,000 grant from the Banfield Charitable Trust and matched by Summa, is staffed by volunteers, said Summa employee Angela Tetrick, volunteer coordinator for the program.
“It’s designed to assist hospice patients and their families where they are least able to care for their pets. We try to help where there is a financial need for food, supplies, medicine and veterinary care,” Tetrick said. Future plans for the program include dog walking, pet cleanup, fostering and pet transportation, she said.
The most unusual situation where the group was called upon was to help with a flock of chickens: “You could tell this patient’s life was all about these chickens. The whole house was decorated with chickens and chickens were all over the backyard,” she said.
Starcher was diagnosed with PSP six years ago after moving in with her daughter and son-in-law, Reese Oblisk, following the death of her husband, Al. The couple had a spacious addition built onto their home just for Starcher.
Susan Oblisk realized right away that there was something wrong with her mother after she lost her balance, sending them both to the ground in a free fall.
To make matters worse, Oblisk landed on a coffee cup with her mother on top of her.
“It hurt. I was crying and I said, ‘Mom, we really need to find out what’s wrong with you,’ ” Oblisk remembers.
It wasn’t the first time Starcher had fallen, Oblisk said. She suspects her stepfather had been concealing his wife’s condition for several years.
“I think he knew for a long time that something was wrong with Mom and covered for her,” she said.
The following week, Oblisk took her mother to see a neurologist who immediately gave them the diagnosis.
PSP is a rare degenerative neurological disease that affects one in every 100,000 people over the age of 60. The disease appears to affect men more than women, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke (NINDS). Some of its early symptoms mimic those of Parkinson’s disease, a much more common illness.
Although the cause is unknown, the disease attacks a portion of the brain involved in eye movement and balance. The damage results in a progressive lack of coordination, stiffness of the neck and trunk, eating and breathing problems and the ability to control eye movement. PSP gets progressively worse over time. There is no cure, according to NINDS, but tests are being conducted to discover the cause.
Life with PSP
Starcher, who was the lead majorette at Copley High School, now has limited vision and stiffness in her neck that causes her chin to tilt upwards. Her facial movements are restricted and her eyes remain wide open — all common symptoms of PSP.
“This disease is horrible and it affects us all. She isn’t just my mom — she’s my best friend,” said Oblisk.
As she always did for herself, Starcher insists her caretaker, Shari Aikens, apply her lipstick and blush each morning. Prior to a visit last week with Summa employees and Bailey, she insisted Aikens put mascara on her, too.
“I need my eye marker,” Starcher told Aikens as she prepared to have her photo taken.
Aikens works with her patient every day, signing words and building puzzles that Starcher feels by touch rather than sight. Together, they enjoy birds at a feeder just outside her window.
Katherine never fails to greet Starcher when she wakes up each day, said Aikens: “She gets right up there on the bed and kisses her. She loves it.”
When Starcher isn’t busy during the day, you can find Katherine perched in her lap or surveying the activity in the room from the back of Starcher’s chair, her preferred place to rest.
Starcher, who was an artist, hand-decorated some of the most beautiful touches in her former Hudson home, said her daughter.
Oblisk has tried to keep her mother surrounded by her favorite things, including a copy of the Mona Lisa, family photos, her own furniture — and of course, Katherine.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com.