James Wathen

James Wathen, 73, was reunited with his long-time companion, Bubba the Chihuahua, in October at Baptist Health Corbin hospital. At the time, Wathen had been hospitalized for weeks and was sinking into a depression his caregivers feared would only worsen without a visit by the little dog.

Bubba the Chihuahua is going home.

It’s a bittersweet turn of events for the one-eyed dog since it comes following the death of his longtime caretaker, James Wathen.

Following a lengthy hospitalization, Wathen, 73, died Sunday at Baptist Health Corbin, according to Diane Elswick, whose husband, Dennis Elswick, was raised by his grandmother and her husband —Wathen.

In October, Bubba and Wathen enjoyed a visit at the hospital, thanks to efforts by the staff of the hospital and the Knox/Whitley Animal Shelter. At the time, Wathen had been hospitalized for about a month and hadn’t seen Bubba since the night the ailing Wathen had called an ambulance. The two were separated and Wathen had no idea what happened to his tiny companion.

Hospital staff noted Wathen was sinking into a dangerous depression, one they were sure was related to his concern for his dog. The reunion was planned and, once Bubba was cradled safely in Wathen’s arms, the roomful of witnesses to the moving event were as teary-eyed as Wathen.

Diane Elswick, who had lived in Williamsburg but now lives in Florida, said Bubba was originally her dog.

Wathen, or “Papaw” as she calls him, got Bubba from her husband after Wathen’s Pomeranian died.

“Dennis gave him my dog while I was at work,” Diane Elswick said.

A few days later, Wathen asked Diane Elswick if she was angry about him having Bubba. She said she wasn’t angry, but that if he intended to keep Bubba he also needed to take her other dog, Ozzy.

It seems Ozzy had suffered since his separation from Bubba, with Diane Elswick describing him as “just lost.”

Wathen agreed and soon Ozzy and Bubba were reunited in his home.

“Bubba’s a good dog and he loved Pop (Wathen) more than anything,” Diane Elswick said.

A long-time truck driver and mechanic, Wathen loved to tell stories. Diane Elswick said he often launched into a tale by saying, “Now I won’t lie to you. . .much.”

“You just don’t know how much we’re going to miss him,” she said.

This year saw some difficult turns in Wathen’s own story. In March, Ozzy died. Then the Elswicks sold their Williamsburg diesel mechanic shop and moved to Florida in June.

A couple days after they moved, Wathen showed up for an unexpected visit that lasted until August.

The Elswicks knew Wathen was ill, suffering from COPD and cirrhosis. He was even hospitalized for several days during the visit and was sent home with hospice care. His situation was so dire he told a social worker his wishes should he die — that he be cremated and that no service be held.

“He went downhill so fast,” Diane Elswick said, adding he began to lose up to 15 pounds a week.

Despite his illness and the Elswicks’ pleas for him to stay with them, Wathen insisted upon his return to Corbin.

The Elswicks could do nothing to compel Wathen to change his mind, neither emotionally nor legally, so Dennis Elswick drove Wathen to his Corbin home.

At the time, Wathen had a mobile home — but he later chose to sell it for reasons that are unclear to his family. When he was hospitalized, he and Bubba were living in his truck and trying to live on pickles and orange juice.

Diane Elswick said at one point she had paid for a motel stay for Wathen. Her mother would take food to the man when she saw him. And other people, including social workers and the police, offered him help but were refused. Again, those who tried to help him had no legal recourse so they had to comply with his wishes.

In the months since Wathen returned to Kentucky, the Elswicks have been constructing a home and their possessions have been in somewhat unsecured storage on their property, preventing them from leaving for fear of theft.

When the Elswicks learned of Wathen’s hospitalization, they called to check on him, but little or no information could be shared because they aren’t blood relatives.

Soon, Dennis Elswick will return to Corbin, where he will pick up Wathen’s ashes, his few remaining possessions and Bubba.

“Bubba’s coming back home. He’s going to be happy.”  

Diane Elswick said she is “thankful” to the shelter’s staff and volunteers who have so lovingly cared for Bubba. Now, Bubba is returning to her home with her dogs and her cat — all of which Bubba played with in the Elswicks’ fenced-in yard when he was in Florida.

“I’m thrilled but I hate the circumstances,” Diane Elswick said. 

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