- Bathed and brushed? Misty’s fur shone and smelled like a field of fresh oats. CHECK!
- Teeth brushed? Both hers and mine. CHECK!
- Therapy Dog identification on? Misty’s new dog tag had arrived. It’s pictured left, but we are still waiting for her monogrammed Therapeutic Paws of Canada vest – and my shirt. CHECK!
- “Diaper Bag” (Michele’s term for the bag to hold necessities) packed and ready? I bought one that could be slung over my shoulder so my hands were free, then stuffed it with a collapsible drinking dish, water bottle, paper napkins, dog treats and bags for –um- poop patrol. CHECK!
- Sillies dispensed? This is where I called on our wonderful Pet Nanny, Sandi, to help ready Misty while I travelled home from work. Sandi’s job was to throw the ball, throw the ball, throw the ball... and throw the ball... and... CHECK!
- Misty fed? Sandi gave Misty the half-bowl of food I’d poured. In anticipation of lots of people feeding treats to Misty, I reduced her supper portions because I didn’t want her to become overstuffed and yak. CHECK!
- Transponder for hospital parking? CHECK!
- Shoes with closed toes? Something about insurance... CHECK!
“Ready to go to work, Girl?” Misty didn’t seem to recognize those words yet, but she definitely recognized, “Go car?” I felt a little sad for Finnegan, my Brittany Spaniel of such sweet disposition who will not be a Therapy Dog in This Life. Staying home left him with only one option: negotiating sleeping arrangements for the couch with the cat.
Once we arrived at the hospital, I had Misty sit before we headed inside. I explained to her that she had important work to do and she must be so very quiet and so good. Her highly intelligent eyes told me that she’d “got it”. We stepped into the rotating door.
No sooner had we emerged from the hospital entrance when one after another, people about to leave the building changed course, veering over to Misty, drawn as though by some irresistible force, arms outstretched to trail fingers through her fur as they walked past . “What a beautiful dog!” “Can I pat your dog?” “Is this a Therapy Dog?” The unwavering bond of dog and human in this most profound place, of birthing, healing, failing, dying, of misery and mystery, was unmistakable. Remarkable. A gift of our shared evolution. Misty gently wagged her tail and offered licks to all who paused to touch her, stroke her, run their hands over her coat, those who looked into her smiling face. Gradually, we made our way the bench where Michele was waiting.
That Michele. Such a Pro. She greeted Misty and Misty greeted Michele. Then, as though it was part of the salutations, I noticed that Michele was touching Misty’s ears, face, paws, looking for any resistance or signs of trouble. Any indication that this dog should not be in contact with the vulnerable patients and staff on the PCU. There was none.
“Is she wearing a collar with a buckle?”
“Got a bag for picking up?”
Not wanting to commit a fashion crime while stooping and scooping, I told Michele with confidence, “Baby Blue.”
We were good to go. Over to the sanitation station we went for Misty’s introduction to the ubiquitous hand sanitizers. I rubbed cleansing foam on Misty’s head, down her back, under her paws. Now it was time. As we walked to the elevator Michele said, “Misty’s going to be smelling a whole lot of new scents that will be strange for her but if you stay calm, she’ll stay calm. She looks like she’s doing pretty well so far, though.” We took the elevator to the floor.
No sooner had we stepped onto the unit when Misty saw her first patient sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway... she pulled me toward the woman. Michele and I had visited *Laura the previous week during my first monitored visit with Michele’s sweet little dog, Jasmine. At that time, Laura was bright and cheery. Clearly, a lot had happened in a week. The sign taped to the wall outside her room said it all: “THIS IS LAURA’S ROOM”. She may have needed help to know which room was hers, but Laura needed no prompting about what to do with Misty. “Well hello, Beautiful!” Laura started sitting up straighter but couldn’t seem to respond with her arms. One hand seemed curled into itself, the other trembled. Misty knew what the circumstances required: she wagged her tail and licked up Laura’s arms. Both seemed delighted. I told her we would come back for another visit once I’d signed us in.
We walked around the nurses’ station to record our arrival in their book and I wondered how long it would take before this ritual seemed familiar. A woman came out of the room opposite speaking into her cell phone. “Look, all I’m saying is if you want to see him you’d better get down her now.” Michele and I exchanged looks.
“C’mon, Girl.” We three moved back in Laura’s direction to give this woman some space. After another brief hallway visit with Laura and another promise to return in a few minutes, we knocked at the door of the young man we’d visited last week. He seemed very deeply asleep with breaths so shallow I watched his chest for some time before I could see respiratory movements. Michele said, “He told me he wanted to be awakened if we came by and he was sleeping, but... I don’t know... I think he’s had his treatment.”
After some indecision, she shrugged and walked over to his bed, calling his name quietly. His eyes opened and immediately he smiled and I was struck with how wan but how sweet was this smile. Such a young man in these circumstances but seemingly at peace – even radiating peace... as though it was a gift being given away. Michele asked him, “Did you have a treatment today?”
He nodded slightly, his eyelids beginning to close.
“I’m sorry, it’s just that you asked me to wake you up if you were sleeping when we brought the dog in.”
His eyelids shot open and he lifted his head, looking around for his canine therapist. He lifted the hand in Misty’s direction and she took the clue, walking over and delivering a few light licks to that hand.
“This is Misty. Isn’t she lovely?” During this introduction Michele was observing the man, assessing his readiness for a visit. She paused, then nodded. Decision made. “Why don’t we let you sleep tonight and we’ll be back to see you next week?” The man nodded, lowering his head back to the bed.
Out to the hall. Sanitize hands. Make notes. We turned to proceed when Misty was engulfed by several sets of arms – nurses. They had come to grab some disposable gloves from beside us. “Oh! I have two Golden Retrievers at home!” “She’s so soft!” “What a sweet face!” Michele sprang to introductions. “This is Misty. She’ll be visiting here from now on.” The nurses bustled off and Michele said, “Be sure you leave some time for letting Misty and the nurses visit. They need the Therapy Dog, too. It can be pretty stressful for them and I’ve heard them say so often how it helps them to have a little cuddle time with a visiting dog.” I didn’t need convincing.
We went to the door of a private room on our “yes” list, knocked and asked if the man wanted a visit from the Therapy Dog. His wife answered and rose to her feet, “Absolutely! Absolutely! Look, Honey,” she lightly tapped her husband’s shoulder. “It’s the Therapy Dog.”
The man in the bed lay on his side with face rounded, made more so by the loss of all his hair. His eyelids were so swollen they nearly closed his eyes, although he seemed drowsy as well. He did not speak. Misty approached the foot of the bed and put a paw up as though she was getting ready to climb up. All I had to do was wiggle her leash and say, “No, Girl,” and she stepped back down. What was it? What had she detected that I had missed? Of all the people she had met so far, why had she thought she should try to get so much closer to this man than the others? In the meantime, his wife had moved around the bed and taken Misty’s head in her hands. “Oh, you’re so beautiful!” Misty was wagging and licking and generally taking care of this woman.
I glanced up and saw a photo of the woman, two gorgeous kids ... and a big, handsome man, apparently taken about a year and a half ago (in obviously happier days). Misty spent quite a while attending to this lady and we left with her asking to ensure we come back soon. “Absolutely.”
In the next room a woman had asked for a visit, so we knocked and went in. “Would you like the see the Therapy Dog?”
The woman in the bed was restless, shifting her socked feet up and down in the bed. “No! No! I too sick!” We smiled, nodded and backed out into the hall.
Our next stop was the room where last week the mischievous woman had offered Michele’s dog, Jasmine, some Cheerios with a sugary coating... which Jasmine, to her credit and her mystery, had refused. As soon as the Empress of Cheerios saw Misty, she held out a handful of the sweet snack – which Misty accepted with thanks. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. My dog had none of the misgivings Jasmine displayed. After all, we were dealing with a Golden Retriever here. Crunch. Crunch. I developed a fit of giggles. Couldn’t stop it. Just couldn’t. All that crunching... it was so... so... unexpected. So loud. So funny. The Empress was delighted but after several handfuls I feared Misty may develop a sugar high, so we moved on.
We entered the room of the man who, last week, had asked us not to leave. The week had been hard on him. He was looking vacantly at the ceiling, his breathing rapid and laboured even with the oxygen canula in his nose. His lips were thin and purplish. Michele asked him if he wanted a visit with the Therapy Dog. Without taking his eyes from the ceiling he just shook his head “no”. Michele said, “Really? No? You don’t want to meet Misty, the new Therapy Dog for this floor?”
With that he lowered his gaze and searched for Misty. Instantly, his eyes focussed. He became alert. “Oh! Yes. Yes! Come here, come here!” He reached out and Misty licked his arm through the bedrail.
I heard Michele say, “She’s a natural. Made for this.”
The man said, “She’s staying with me for the night. You’re just going to leave her here.” I gave him some of the treats I’d brought, which he held out to Misty, somewhat awkwardly through the bedrails. I was never more proud of her than that moment when she calmly accepted the offerings of this man. With determination and enormous strain, he pulled himself onto his side so that he could lay as close as possible to Misty, who nuzzled under his arm.
That’s when I heard it: not so much a moan; not loud enough to be wailing; as though weeping but without tears. Something far distant. Remote. Even ancient. Was it fear? A quest? Or the shared beating of hearts that has passed between the species from the time early human and wolfish ancestor learned the comfort of huddling together in darkness. At The Precipice. It was here. Now. Michele wiped the tears from her eyes and backed away, giving man and dog their space and privacy. I sat in a chair beside the bed leaving Misty to take care of this soul.
Some time later Michele and I were chatting at the front door of the hospital. Misty had stretched out on the cold floor and was close to sleeping when a nurse approached and began stroking her. “How come the patients get to have the dogs and we don’t?” She winked. It was a joke. At least in part.
“Very busy.” She sighed and shook her head. Misty had turned onto her side so the nurse wouldn’t miss an opportunity to scratch that tummy. “We’re very busy, Misty. It’s a good thing you’re here to take care of all of us.” Yes. A good thing.
Misty and I went to the car. When I’m driving Misty usually stands up in the back seat, looking over my shoulder like a 60 pound parrot. After her first visit to the PCU, however, she had just enough energy to clamber into the back seat where she stretched out across the whole bench. I don’t think she so much as twitched a whisker on the way home.