I took a deep breath as the elevators doors opened up on the surgical floor. It’s another Thursday with lots of cases to do and lots of patients to see. The floor was a beehive of activity as it was approaching shift-change. I was met with the customary morning greetings as I strolled down the hallway with my usual Styrofoam cup of cafeteria coffee in hand.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar golden retriever outfitted with a red bandanna around the neck enter a room. ‘Dog volunteer Thursday…love it,’ I said and smiled as I walked on.
I slowed my pace as I approached Room 917 on the surgical wing because I knew how the conversation would transpire. It would be short, gruff and less than inspiring.
I took a deep breath, rapped on the heavy wooden door and pushed on in. The conversation in the room fell to a hushed murmur.
“James, how’s it going?”
“How do you feel?”
“Have ya been out of bed?”
“Any thoughts on the surgery?”
“Still thinking…haven’t decided yet, doc.”
That’s exactly how the conversation went…or lack thereof.
James was transferred from his local hospital to the ‘big city hospital’ with abdominal pain. We found a large intestinal mass…most likely cancer. He was a tough cookie…retired from a manufacturing job a few years ago. His demeanor was closed off, standoff-ish, and down-right mean at times. I never held that against him…he was scared, I know…and hesitant of the unknown.
I thought back on my medical education…4 years of med school, 1 year of internship, and 6 years of surgical education. They taught us to think, learn, diagnose and fix things that needed fixed. What they didn’t teach us was the human element….the bedside manner, the compassion and empathy. You learned that on the fly and had to learn that quickly. Some docs had it and some did not. I thought I was good a communicator, a good listener but sometimes I had my doubts especially with patients like James.
James was the patriarch of a large family…a husband, father and grandfather. He had so many things left to do in this life. As I mentioned, he was a stubborn ‘country fella’ who didn’t trust ‘city-folk’ and was skeptical of anything we had to say. It was understandable. I mean, here he was healthy as a horse and not a lick of medical problems for basically his whole life and then I come along and tell him he has an intestinal tumor that most likely is the ‘Big-C’ word.
Every day I would stop and check on James and daily the discussion was the same. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had spoken with his family, privately, in hopes of trying to convey the gravity of the situation.
A few times I noted a change in his personality whenever our dog therapy volunteers would come by. Barb was the coordinator of the group. She had a gaggle of wonderful volunteers who would bring in their dogs once a week or so to visit with the patients. The group had dogs of all sorts…mostly mutts…big ones, small ones and everything in-between. The mood on every floor on those days was a night-and-day difference. Sometimes I would hear laughter and ‘dog-speak’ coming from the rooms…even from James’ room. However, as soon as the dogs left, James would be back to his old, closed-off self but at least there was a ‘crack’ in his defensive armor.
After my visit with James, I stopped Barb in the hallway and asked about a dog named Brody. Brody was a lab mix who lost one of his front legs to, yep…you guessed it, cancer. He had an osteosarcoma or bone cancer in his right-front leg and instead of putting him down, his owners elected to have his leg removed. He hadn’t come around much because he was a little bit ‘older’ than the other dogs and got winded sooner than his doggie-colleagues, but he would ‘hop’ from room to room like it was nobody’s business basically unaware that he had only three legs and always happy to meet a new friend. I asked Barb to see if she could bring him in for a visit with James.
The Wednesday before Brody’s visit, I sat with James and talked, as usual, and with the same result. I stood up and headed for the door and just before leaving I said, “James, the pups love you…we need you to stick around. It’s not time for you to ‘go’ yet.”
That Thursday I had an emergency surgery and had to push my morning patient rounds to later in the day but when that morning case ended, I received a call from the 9th floor. It was James’ nurse who said that James wanted to speak to me as soon as possible.
I gently hung-up the phone…smiling slightly.
The ‘ding’ of the elevator snapped me out of my trance as the shiny, steel doors slid open. I walked purposefully towards Room 917 and saw James’ nurse holding the door open for me. As I crossed the threshold, I heard the now familiar laughs of patient and family as well as the occasional ‘yap’ and playful bark of a dog.
“Well, well…what have we here?” I asked.
“You put Brody up to this, doc? This is your doing I’m sure,” James said accusingly. “You know this dog had cancer and he only has three legs?”
“I may have known about that James.”
“You win, doc. If Brody can survive a big operation and bounce around like a puppy, I can too…I suppose.”
And he did. It was a tough, long surgery but James did great. For quite awhile, I received an annual Christmas card from James. Retirement took him to a suburb of Phoenix. He was able to experience more grandchildren and even a graduation and marriage of one of them. At some point, James and his wife rescued two pit bulls and, as you can imagine, spoiled them to no end.
Brody passed away about 4 years after James’ surgery but during those years, Brody’s owner and James kept in touch. And on a final note…that day that James decided to have his operation, his daughter took a quick, candid photo of James and Brody in James’ hospital bed. James sent me a picture of himself posing by a stone hearth and mantle. That hospital picture of James and Brody was simply framed in brass and on that mantle.
Dogs…they are four-legged(or three-legged), furry angels that bring unconditional love and happiness. Programs like the story I described have been around in varying degrees for the patients for many years. The benefits of pet therapy have been studied by very robust protocols and published in very respectable journals and publications like the New England Journal of Medicine, The Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Nature, The Lancet, and many others.