During his tenure at the hospital, Tom demonstrated an uncanny sense of knowing when a patient is nearing the end, making sure he's there to snuggle next to them as they take their final breaths. But the cat's comfort is as much for families as it is for the vets themselves.
When World War II veteran Edwin Gehlert passed away at the Salem VA recently, the orange cat was there by his side, sharing the sad moment with serviceman's family. Gehlert's widow Elizabeth told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that, just by being close by, Tom helped shift the mood from mourning the loss of the vet to celebrating his life.
"My husband had a beautiful passing because of that cat," Gehlert said. "I had such joy in my heart."
The VA hospice's resident psychologist, Betty Gillespie, describes how cats like Tom can be the best medicine during times of great sadness.
"Families often feel helpless. You're watching your loved one die and you know you can't save them. Sometimes you can't even talk to them, or wake them up. All you can do is watch and wait," says Gillespie.
"But Tom provides you with some comfort; he's something for you to focus on. Because when a tabby cat casually walks into the room, it sends a message that everything is OK, everything is as it should be. Tom's like a good piece of music. He instantly connects with everyone in the room."
And there's science to back up Tom's role at the hospice clinic. Studies have found that cats can reduce blood pressure in patients, while also reducing their fear and anxiety - making those final moments of life more comfortable simply by being there.