GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Police say a Georgia man who had been homeless for years has died, days after a touching photo of a police officer comforting him in the hospital this week went viral.
The Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office shared a photo of Lawrenceville Officer Dena Walker Pauly comforting the man, identified only as "Bob" in his hospital bed Monday.
Shannon Volkodav, the public information officer for Gwinnett County, shared the sweet photo on Facebook. The original post has been shared over 10,000 times.
"You may look at this picture and see a caring granddaughter comforting her beloved grandfather as he lies in a weakened state in a hospital bed," Volkadov wrote. "The truth is that this woman is a police officer and she met Bob only two years ago while she was on duty."
Volkodav said that when Pauly met Bob on a call in 2017, a stroke had left him nonverbal and unable to communicate.
She said it was a fateful meeting between Pauly and Bob that day.
"My blue sister may have been dispatched that day by police radio, but I have no doubt she was really sent by God," Volkodav wrote.
Channel 2 Gwinnett County Bureau Chief Tony Thomas talked to Pauly about the special bond that she forged with Bob over the next two years, despite his disability.
"He brought out a compassion that I knew that I always had," Pauly said. "He quickly became very special to me, when I was able to help him kind of regain some sort of life."
Pauly learned that Bob had been separated from his family at age 4 and homeless from around 14 years old to 60. He'd recently been moved into government housing.
Pauly told Thomas that when she drove him home that day, she was shocked by his living conditions despite the fact that he lived in a small apartment.
"He still lived like a homeless person indoors," Pauly said. "Whether it was sleeping in a cardboard box in his living room to throwing trash on the floor."
Pauly said she realized that not only could Bob not communicate, but he didn't know how to do basic functions like use a microwave or can opener.
Pauly sprung into action to help. She called in a company to remove the trash and she and her friend and sister-in-law cleaned the apartment and made it livable. She raised money to provide some furniture and taught Bob how to clean up after himself.
In time, they learned to communicate in their own language.
"We did. I don't know how, but we did learn to communicate," Pauly said. "At first, you could tell the frustration when he would want to say things. But I learned to have him show me what he needed."
She said her bond with Bob was sort of like that of a mother and child.
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"He was almost like having a child," Pauly said. "He would get frustrated like a child when he couldn't communicate. And our friendship just grew."
Bob was hospitalized in May, as his health began to decline. Doctors believe the stroke left him unable to talk in the mid-'90s, and he wasn't able to communicate what was wrong.
Pauly was eventually given power of attorney to help guide his medical care since Bob had no family to speak for him.
Volkodav said Pauly made the difficult decision to place him in hospice earlier this week after it was determined he had pneumonia.
"Luckily, we had a chance to talk about God and the afterlife, so I'm very fortunate for that," Pauly said.
Bob died Wednesday, but not before Pauly got to assure him that he was important to her.
"She held his hand and told him many times that she loved him," Volkodav said. "It's quite possible she's the first person to ever utter those words to this poor man."
A local funeral home offered to provide cremation services for free.
Volkodav said Bob and Pauly's story is a testament to the compassion of police officers.
"We are drawn to this profession because we care," Volkodav said. "We care so deeply that it hurts sometimes. We see the worst, but sometimes we also get to see the best. And we have opportunities to truly make a difference for people, like Bob."
For Pauly, her compassion for Bob in his last days stemmed from a simple promise.
"The day I met him, I told him he would have a friend for life," Pauly said. "And I was there until the end."
Cox Media Group