Tears trickled down Joe’s cheeks into his gray beard. The 75-year-old widower lay alone in a hospital bed in La Jolla, California after he had received a heart-valve transplant.

Tubes in his chest drained fluid and a nasal cannula delivered oxygen. PIC lines in his neck and wrist supplied avenues for medication. A thick, metallic taste filled his mouth, and he smelled the untouched, baked salmon on the over-bed table. He eased his stiff, sore body onto his side, dragging the tubes and lines.

A man in an adjoining room coughed up phlegm.

After the six-hour surgery three days earlier, Joe had lain awake every night. When he dozed, nurses often woke him to measure his vitals.

The room grew smaller and smaller and his pulse rate soared. He reached for the remote control to call a nurse.

Hearing a knock on the door, Joe turned his head. “Come . . ., come in.” He pulled the sheet over his chest.

A tall woman with black, shiny, tied-back hair and clear skin walked into the room with a Golden Retriever on a leash. Her eyebrows arched over her large, brown eyes.

“Hi. My name is Jessica, and I’m a volunteer. I bring my dog to visit patients. Will that be okay?”

“Ah . . . sure. What a beautiful dog. What’s his name?”

“Rocky. He’s full-bred but because his tail is not perfectly straight, he’ll not win any competitions. That’s how I could afford him.”

Rocky placed his head on Joe’s thigh. When Joe rubbed Rocky’s head and scratched behind his ears, Rocky closed his eyes with pleasure.

“My voice is hoarse because . . . a tube was put down my throat during surgery.”

“No need to talk. You and Rocky can just enjoy each other’s company.”

Joe half-smiled.

Jessica sat on a couch. “Dog owners have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and fewer heart attacks than those without pets. Would you like to hear a story about a dog who changed my life?”

Joe nodded and continued to massage Rocky.

“I got married in 1978, and in 1980 I had a baby,” Jessica said. “When he was 18 months old, we were living in a bungalow colony in upstate New York, in the Adirondacks. An elderly woman, Debbie, and her old Golden Retriever, Bella, lived next door. I used to see them together when Debbie was outside gardening. My 18-month-old son, Adam, liked the friendly dog.

“When Debbie died, her relatives emptied her house of her treasures. They contacted a real estate agent who put a ‘For Sale’ sign on her property. Then they locked the house and drove away.

“Because I’d grown up with no awareness of animals, it didn’t cross my mind to say, ‘Wait a minute. Who’s gonna take care of Bella?’

“Neighbors fed her occasionally. Bella mostly stayed near the house where her owner had died. When Bella came to play with Adam, he fed her cookies. Once in a while, I gave her leftovers.

“One morning, I went to get Adam, who’d been playing in our grassy yard. He was gone. I can picture the scene: I was hysterical, my husband rushed home, neighbors helped us search for Adam.

“‘Call the police,’” I screamed.

“The local police searched for three hours before they notified the state police who brought in helicopters.

“We didn’t know if he’d been abducted. Was he alive?

“The search had been going on for six hours when a neighbor who’d just returned home said, ‘Where’s Bella?’

“I thought, ‘Why is he asking about the dog?’

 “‘Maybe she’s with Adam,’ someone else said.

“What did I know about animals? ‘Why would she be with Adam?’ I asked.

“A trooper recalled that he’d heard a dog barking deep in the woods during the foot search. And suddenly everybody yelled, ‘Bella. Bella.’

“We rushed into the woods where we eventually heard faint barking. We found Bella holding my sleeping son upright against the trunk of a tree with her shoulder. One of her legs was hanging over a 25-foot drop to a gully.

“She must have followed Adam when he wandered off. She’d been a better mother than me. Adam had struggled, I’m sure. When I picked Adam up, Bella collapsed.”

Joe tasted his salty tears.

“My husband, sobbing with relief, carried Bella home. She spent the rest of her life with us until she was 16-years-old. I loved her completely.

“From then on, I learned everything I could about the breed. I thought they were the smartest, the best. When we moved to San Diego, I started a Golden Retriever shelter, and it mushroomed.

“Because of Bella, we have 100 animals, all kinds, including birds and pot-bellied pigs. Our sanctuary is well recognized. We take animals that other shelters won’t take: the old who are incontinent, the blind, the ugly. They’re all beautiful to me.”

A slow smile appeared on Joe’s face. “Good story. Thank you so much for bringing Rocky and for your story.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’ve had dogs for years,” Joe said. “They’re family.”

“Yes, indeed. Well Rocky, time to go.”

Rocky raised his head and Joe gave him a final pat.

“Bye, buddy,” Joe said. He closed his eyes and felt as content as an infant smiling in its sleep.