Jeff Angileri
May 27, 2009, 10:16 PM

St. Mary's Hospital marked a sad milestone Wednesday. The pet therapy program lost its first dog to cancer.

These are the animals that lift the spirits of hospital patients, whether they have a sprained ankle or a terminal illness. The day wasn't just about remembering a dog, but also celebrating the people and pets who have brought hope and comfort to so many.

When Judy Zimmerman's husband Jim was fighting a terminal brain tumor, the couple found comfort in a furry friend.

It really eased him. You could tell he was relaxed, Judy said. He was just in love with that dog.

A golden retriever, named Erik, a cancer patient himself, visited them in the hospital, on good days and bad.

It really warms the patient's heart who is sitting in bed, thinking of their dog, and being able to touch that fur and give a hug, Judy said.

Even during Jim's final days, Erik lay beside him, hand and paw clutched, at peace.

It really makes them forget where they are -- that they are in a hospital, and just really helps them, said Judy.

I trusted him implicitly, said Dan Darmstadter, Erik's owner. I could lay him in bed with patients, and not be worried about him rolling around or doing anything to endanger the patient.

Jim and Erik are both gone now, but their legacy lives on through the pet therapy program. Twenty dogs and their owners now roam St. Mary's Hospital, bringing smiles to patients who might otherwise sit in bed alone.

The dogs visit anywhere from 10 to 20 patients a day, and that doesn't include the family members, hospital staff, and visitors who love the canine company.

For patients, it's an invaluable service, allowing them to focus, if only for a few minutes, on something other than being sick.

You run into people that just need the support, Darmstadter said. When they see you and get on the ground and start crying and holding onto the dog. You've touched someone's life and helped them through a difficult time.

This is a volunteer program. If you're interested in helping out call the pet therapy program at (608) 258-6640 or log onto: