It’s no secret that BC’s long-term care facilities have been hit hard by this pandemic. Devastating outbreaks and indefinite visitation restrictions have had a ripple effect on staff, residents, and their families. The restrictions have also disrupted services provided by volunteers like Stuart Mah, CPA, CMA.
Stuart and his 10-year-old certified therapy dog Nugget have been providing much-needed companionship to the long-term care residents at Mount St. Joseph Hospital since 2017. Unable to continue his weekly visits in person, Stuart says he worried about how the social isolation would affect the residents.
“Many people are suffering from loneliness, especially during COVID-19,” he says. “The pandemic put a complete stop to our visits at the hospital, and I was concerned about losing the bonds Nugget and I had built with these seniors.”
Determined to find a way to stay connected, Stuart converted the pair’s in-house visits to a variety of virtual experiences. He co-ordinates with the hospital’s long-term care staff to host weekly FaceTime chats that give residents a chance to “tune in” to Nugget’s adventures. During each call, they get to watch Nugget—a 100-lb Rottweiler/German Shepherd/Labrador cross—play fetch, walk local trails, or even perform a few tricks. As an older dog, Nugget’s talents may not get him recruited to the PNE “Super Dogs,” but this gentle giant knows exactly how to brighten someone’s day.
“Some of the residents will reach out to touch Nugget on the screen,” says Stuart. “Some will clap their hands in joy or just watch him with huge smiles on their faces. I’ve been overwhelmed by their reactions.”
Overwhelmed, but not surprised. Stuart says he knew his four-legged friend was special from the first time they met.
“I adopted Nugget from a family in Lax Kw’alaams, an Indigenous village community near Prince Rupert, in 2014, and he has given me a greater appreciation for everything positive in life,” Stuart reflects. “Nugget has been my saviour in challenging times, and I wanted to connect him with people who would benefit from being in his presence.”
Stuart and Nugget stop for a photo-op along the False Creek Seawall. Photo provided by Stuart Mah.
Lately, those people include Stuart’s co-workers at Inproheat in Vancouver, where he serves as CFO.
“Nugget loves people who come bearing snacks, and he gets extremely spoiled with extra treats when he visits my office,” Stuart says with a laugh. “He has an adorable face and loves snuggling up to people, and his naturally chill personality helps to relieve tension.”
Bringing his certified therapy dog to work is just one of the ways Stuart goes above and beyond to support his colleagues.
“Since the pandemic hit," he says, "I’ve made a conscious effort to pay extra close attention to the concerns of our staff and let them know that I’m here for them."
When asked what he feels is the best part of his job, Stuart says he goes to work every day looking forward to the opportunity to “make a difference, add value, and empower people.”
And his supportive leadership style hasn’t gone unnoticed. In part, it’s what led to his promotion to CFO in November 2020. Then, at the end of 2020, Stuart’s passion for helping others earned him some unexpected recognition outside of the company.
After local media outlets—including CityNews and Global News—caught wind of their virtual pet therapy initiative, Stuart and Nugget found themselves on the receiving end of a steady stream of media requests. The pair has been tapped for television appearances, radio interviews, print and digital profiles, and even a few photo shoots.
Nugget is ready for his close-up with Global News outside Mount St. Joseph Hospital. Photo provided by Stuart Mah.
“Nugget’s enjoying the attention,” Stuart jokes. “His Instagram account has grown to a respectable following.”
Of course, for Stuart, the most meaningful reward of the past year has been the impact on the long-term care residents at Mount St. Joseph Hospital.
“Their response has been priceless.”
With rising case counts and increasing restrictions in BC, it’s hard to say how long it will be before Stuart and Nugget will be able to resume their in-person visits with hospital residents. Until then, Stuart will keep working on new ways to expand the duo's outreach.
“Volunteering with Nugget reminds me that there is more to life than just work,” he says, adding that his wife Liza and adult children Sarah, Laura, and Trevor are his inspiration for giving back to the community. “We’re grateful to be a close-knit family, and we believe in sharing what we have with others.”
You can follow Stuart and Nugget’s adventures on Instagram at @thediaryofawimpydog.
Megan Hooge is a communications coordinator for CPABC.
Look for a shorter version of this profile in the upcoming May/June 2021 issue of CPABC in Focus.