What a Pig Can Teach Us About End-of-Life Care

Zumi the Palliative Pig brings singular comfort to dying patients

When Cleveland Clinic’s Krista Dobbie, MD, got her pet pig Zumi (above), it was initially as a favor to herself. “I am a palliative medicine physician; I needed something funny and silly in my life,” she writes in her essay, “Zumi, The Palliative Pig,” for Intima, a Journal of Narrative Medicine. “My days are emotionally draining and I was starting to ponder just how many more years I could stay in this field. Why not a pet pig?”

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Soon she started filming Zumi’s exploits on her phone as the pig affectionately interacted with children and dogs or got into all varieties of amusing mischief, like slurping yogurt from a plastic cup.

To make her dying patients smile or ease their anxiety, Dr. Dobbie began sharing her videos of Zumi. Then patients started asking her to share her latest Zumi photo or video after they’d received bad news or to help them get through a particularly tough patch of treatment.

“Zumi became my patients’ pig too,” Dr. Dobbie writes in her essay. “Zumi gave us something to discuss other than their dreaded disease…. She eases anxiety and lifts emotional pain. While temporary, that relief was long enough to help break down the barriers to allow a discussion about what patients are truly fearful of…dying.”

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Eventually patients started requesting that Dr. Dobbie bring Zumi to their house to meet them, typically in the final weeks of a terminal illness. “Families thank me for the visits, but it is really for me,” she writes. “It means so much to me that a little pig can bring such joy to someone who is dying.”

Dr. Dobbie’s 1,500-word essay, which won honorable mention in Intima’s 2016 essay contest, is rich with insights she’s gained from Zumi’s impact on her patients and fellow caregivers. Read it in full here.