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Monday, April 4, 2011

The 'Tail' of Steve


Names/conditions and other personal information from a Therapy Visit cannot be shared.

Chad Burgess, Carla Donovan-Burgess and Gopher are volunteers and do not officially represent any institution mentioned in these visits.

 The experiences, conversations are true and really took place the names of persons, if given have only been changed to protect the privacy of those we visit.

Carla and I were both warned that at some point in our therapy visits there would be one patient that would really touch us. This is not to say we aren’t touched by all the people we visit, it is that at least one would cause you to look past your objectivity, get close to your dog, and make you stay longer than scheduled. The time has come and for the purpose of this story we will call him Steve.

Steve is a shy little boy who is extremely ill. He is undergoing a dangerous treatment to help him fight a disease that could take this life before he gets the chance to grow up. Steve is only seven and is a typical little boy at first appearance. He is terribly shy and when he talks with you it he never looks at you, always down or through his mother. When I wrote this I had three wonderful opportunities to learn about Steve.

Gopher and I arrived and we took our typical place by the fireplace in the little room where our visits are held. There was a mother and a little boy that were already there waiting for us. This was Steve and I couldn’t help but notice that he smiled at Gopher as soon as we walked into the room. In the therapy setting with a dog it is the opposite as in the public, when walking down the street you should always ask for permission to pet a dog. In the therapy setting you ask the person if they want to say hi and do not approach until there is an affirmation. Steve looked for a moment over his portable video game device then quickly turned to look at his mom who told him it was okay. Instead of getting up and coming over he seemed in sink deeper into the chair, covering his face leaving only narrow slits of his eyes looking over his gaming device. I could not help but smile when I noted the power light indicator was not black and not the glowing crimson or jade when this device was in operation. I looked down at Gopher smiling and gave him a pet. Steve stayed put in his chair.

After a few minutes a few more kids started to arrive and began visiting with Gopher. I couldn’t help but notice the gaming device had slumped away from Steve’s face and he watched closely how the kids were interacting with Gopher and how I was interacting with them. I am not quite sure when or how it came about but without me noticing Steve had moved from his chair and was thoroughly petting Gopher and Gopher focused his soft loving brown eyes directly on Steve and somewhat embarrassingly did not acknowledge the other kids as much. I don’t know if I can ever knowingly explain why he did that, Steve was not stroking a particular spot that Gopher desires he was softly patting his chest something done 100’s of times a day and a move that has never drawn his focus so intently. Did Gopher know Steve needed him ‘more’ than the other kids at that moment? Did he know they were beginning to form a friendship? I don’t think any of us will ever know, but there he was a dog who instinctually will avoid direct eye contact was taking those deep chestnut brown eyes that seem to have wisdom beyond my understanding were staring directly into Steve’s eyes.

The other kids many of them had seen and played with Gopher before excitedly ran off to join in the arts and craft activity happening in the room adjacent to us. This left Steve alone with Gopher. I spoke with Steve a few times, and he would respond, but always kept looking at Gopher. Gopher decided to settle in and lay down on his side to take in the full massage given by Steve. This would continue for nearly thirty minutes when Steve suddenly got up. Gopher raised his head at the loss of his masseur. Steve went over to the chair and picked up his gaming device cam back over and lay down on the floor resting his head on Gopher’s chest and shoulder. I learned as this moment that only the day before Steve had undergone a long and exhausting treatment. His mother asked him if he needed to go upstairs and go to bed, Steve looked at his mother and in a loud affirmative tone said “NO MOM!” His mother had told him how happy this time was making her that due to his illness and his innate shyness he was not engaging with anyone or any thing. I looked back to Gopher and Steve during this discussion and discovered that Steve had turned the gaming device on this time and the glow of the screen illuminating his and Gophers face who had draped his neck over Steve’s shoulder and rested his head on Steve’s chest. I was startled at first and exchanged looks with Steve’s mom to see if this was okay or if I needed to move Gopher. She shook her head no with tears in her eyes watching her son interact with another living being for the first time in months.

Amazed by this I watched as Steve continued to play his game and noticed that he was talking the entire time. Gopher also did not go to sleep or close this eyes he just kept his eyes open looking at the gaming screen and Steve through the corners of his eyes, moving those Golden eyebrows back and forth with his eyes. The time came for Gopher and I to leave came too quickly, and I ignored the clock fifteen more minutes passed this way, when Steve’s mom asked me if I wasn’t supposed to leave. I acknowledged that I was, and Steve sat straight up and turned to Gopher. He looked right into his face and said “I don’t want you to leave Gopher.” I told him I was sorry but it was time for Gopher to go home and get his dinner, Steve kept looking at Gopher and asked “Gopher, can you come back, when will you be back?” I told him we would be back in just a few days as we were visiting the facility twice that week. Gopher had moved into a sit and place one paw on Steve’s arm not breaking the gaze. Steve then said “I will see you when you come back.” putting both arms around Gopher Steve gave him a hug., and Gopher reciprocated by resting his head on Steve’s back. Steve’s mom thanked me for my visit and bringing Gopher and I told her not hanks needed it is always a pleasure to come here. I grabbed Gopher’s pack and quickly and headed out the door before anyone could notice the tears I had in my eyes.

I loaded Gopher in the car and after I regained my composure called Carla and my father immediately to tell them the story. I added that if Gopher decided that this was it and he didn’t want to do therapy work anymore that I could retire him that night and still feel that all the work, time and money spent was well worth it. I am pleased to say that Gopher is not interested in retirement yet.

The time had arrived for Gopher and I to return and he began to whimper in excitement as soon as we turned the corner to approach the facility. We came in and logged in at the office passing the fireplace room on the way. I was disappointed to see that Steve and his mom were not waiting for us. We logged in and went to the fireplace room and took our typical positions. Kids and families started arriving and playing with and petting Gopher, before I knew it nearly twenty minutes had passed and I was concerned we had not seen Steve, when his mother arrived carrying a milk bone. She came right over to me giving Gopher a pat on the head.

“Steve isn’t feeling well today.” she reported to me.

“Sorry to hear that” was my response, keeping a close eye on the crowd of kids that were now surrounding Gopher.

“He has not stopped talking about Gopher since your last visit. He has created all these stories of things they were going to do today. Then last night he started feeling really bad, a side effect of his treatment. He told me this morning that he had to feel better soon ‘cause Gopher was coming to see him. When the time came for your visit he was upset and said he didn’t think he could go, he asked me to bring down this treat and give it to Gopher and tell him he was sorry. May I give him the treat?”

“Sure Gopher can have the treat, tell Steve thank you and that Gopher loves treats, and hopes he can see him next time.”

She knelt down gave Gopher the treat and a hug as well and whispered a “Thank you” into his ear and left.

Gopher and I continued the visit and when it was time to leave we left, no less emotional than the last visit. This is truly why I chose to do therapy work, there is no pay it takes time out of your day, but rewards like this make all the difference.

Gopher and I would return again and this time Steve was waiting for us. Gopher and him played and interacted the entire time. At one point Gopher laid on his side while Steve and another little boy played with Dinosaur toys on his side, becoming his own Jurassic Park. When the time came for us to leave came Steve gave him another hug and told Gopher he would see him next time.

Now I am torn, I cannot wait to return to see Steve and Gopher interact again it is one of the greatest moments I have had the opportunity to witness. Equally though I will be happy for the day when Steve can go home recovered and get to be a child, perhaps even getting his own Golden Retriever to play with, since he asked shortly before we left on our last visits. “Mom, I know I can’t have Gopher, but when I am better can I get a dog just like him?” 

Thank you Steve for letting Gopher and I come see you and be a part of your life. I hope to see you again but more than that I hope to hear you have gone home and are awaiting the arrival of your own Golden.

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