Hercules, in classical mythology, is a hero and god famous for his strength, travels, and adventures.
At the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, a black lab, appropriately named Hercules, is a hero to veterans, visitors, and VA staff. He's their resident rock star and therapy dog, and he's about to celebrate his third birthday.
Robert Lynch is a Marine, the Tampa VA Veterans Experience Officer, and proud dad to Hercules. As a service-connected veteran, Lynch is upfront and open discussing his physical and mental health needs, including mobility, depression and anxiety.
In 2017, Lynch applied for a therapy dog to help with his own overall health, but after further thought wanted to expand the role of his potential new best friend. He talked with Tampa VA Director Joe Battle about having a therapy dog as a VA staff member.
Battle loved the idea of a full-time canine on staff, as did other leadership and they created a hospital policy defining what would be the role of their new employee.
Southeastern Guide Dogs, a non-profit group that trains guide and service and therapy dogs, brought a few furry friends to meet Robert. Once Lynch met Hercules, he knew they had a special bond. The trainer from Southeastern saw it too, saying they were "surprised at how fast the two connected."
To this day, Hercules doesn't want Lynch out of his sight. While working at the Tampa VA, Hercules and Lynch do spend some time apart as Hercules goes with other trained handlers to visit different areas of the hospital. Hercules puts in about 50 hours a week, rotating visits to various clinics and care units.
A work day for Hercules can range from playing fetch with veterans in physical therapy, painting with veterans in a creative arts class, or playing a role in a Final Salute–a ceremony held inside the VA to honor a veteran who has passed. Hercules carries the flag and seeks out those who may need some emotional support.
Lynch received a call one day with a special request. A veteran in the hospice unit wanted to visit with Hercules again. Hercules was not scheduled to visit that part of the hospital that day, so Lynch made arrangements and took the intuitive black lab to see the patient as quickly as possible.
Hercules got in bed and snuggled the gentleman as he reminisced about his boyhood pup named Shadow and how Hercules reminded him of his beloved dog.
Lynch and Hercules spent about 45 minutes with the patient and then went back to their regular schedule. A short time later, Lynch received a call. "It was for a Final Salute. The same man that wanted to see Hercules in hospice had passed and they wanted us to be a part of the Final Salute."
Director Joe Battle consoled Lynch by telling him, "You gave that man, that veteran, his last wish, there's no better way to honor him."
Hercules shakes with Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams at the VA Patient Experience Symposium.
As VA staff come in to start their day, several make sure to stop by Lynch's office and get a hug from Hercules. Lynch knows the importance of this seemingly small gesture. "It's just as important to enhance the staff experience as it is the veteran experience when they come to VA," he said. "Something positive sets the tone for the work day and happier employees means happier customers."
What does Hercules do to unwind and have fun? He takes breaks during the day and will lay at Lynch's feet to rest and recharge. On the weekends, Lynch and his family take Hercules fishing and to his favorite spot–the dog beach.
"Sometimes I think he's kinda bummed out that he's not at the hospital every day. He likes to play with other dogs, but he really loves to be around people," Lynch said. "He's so devoted. I still have my own issues. I love to see him make others happy."
Tampa VA will be celebrating Hercules' 3rd birthday with a Barkday party, June 26, 2019, at 1pm. For details, visit the James A. Haley VA Medical Center's Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/VATampa/.
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.