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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is there value in a Therapy Session when you don’t see a patient?

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.


Gopher, Carla and I went on a Therapy visit recently to a local Ronald McDonald House. For those not familiar with this charity, the Ronald McDonald House (RMH) provides living arrangements for families and very sick children whom have to be near a hospital for a series of long treatments.

While visiting I have had two experiences one with patients and their families, and sometimes with only the families. The advantages of Therapy Animal Visits with patients are well documented and researched, and are the images most people have in their heads when they think about Therapy visits. When you start training I know our instructor informed us that this is not always the case and sometimes it is just as much for the families and the staff of a facility.

I have witnessed this as well. There are times when a patient getting a visit might not be up for the visit or is unavailable as they are currently undergoing a treatment. The interactions with the families are no less rewarding and it is my judgment no less beneficial to the patient. An ill person especially a child relies heavily on their family and staff for support. This is a stressful place to be especially in regards to a child who is ill and could be fighting for their life before they even have had a chance conceptualize life and death. In some sad instances a child might only know hospitals, clinics, and a facility like RMH. The support and break a therapy animal is able to give these families and staff is no less important than the break it gives the patient. In a previous entry I spoke about a woman who used the fur of a wonderful Golden to dry her tears, not only was that wonderful animal in a place to provide fur as a Kleenex, it gave this mother the opportunity to cry, show vulnerability, not often afforded to her due to the strength she has to show for her child.

Gopher had this opportunity recently, but this time is wasn’t for the mother it was for the sibling. Fifteen minutes after our arrival a young boy approached Gopher, Carla and I where we sat by a fireplace in a public sitting area of RMH and began to talk. He was very curious about Gopher and anxious to share stories about his experiences with family dogs. He would be our primary and almost our only guest during our one hour visit. I don’t think a moment went by when he wasn’t talking and/or petting Gopher. His stories were wild and improbable typical of a young boy his age, speckled with elements of truth and embellished to add excitement, or the ideas of both wisdom and experience on his part. I can’t even begin to recall all of the stories or where one story ended and another began, but I can tell you some truth, not embellished as this young boys story.

Truth: He was young and his sibling was facing an uncertain future, fighting for his life.
Truth: He was living with his family at RMH where due to this illness he had to be part of a very difficult time, attempting to grasp and understand concepts that were beyond his limited years.
Truth: He was not sick, but his sibling was, and due to the care needed he had to live in an environment where everyone he interacted with was sick or caring for the sick.
Truth: For 45 minutes he was with Gopher and us, not directly caring for the sick, and for those 45 minutes he got to be a kid and maybe forget for a moment the scary things going on around him.

Upon leaving, Carla, Gopher and I were exhausted heads spinning from the stories we had been hearing, and watching him tell them. We did not directly interact with a patient that day, but our visit was no less worthwhile, we gave a young boy an opportunity to be a boy. With that respite I can only imagine the stories he told his parents or sibling perhaps making them laugh for a moment in a place where tears are very common.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why Therapy?

It is hard to believe after only a few weeks Gopher has fans! I truly appreciate the notes and feedback I have received, and every one that has taken a moment to send me a message has done two things. First they have asked me to give Gopher a pet or kiss for them. Done and done. Second they ask me one question, “Why did you choose to do Therapy work with your dog?” To be truly honest I am not entirely sure, but I know a lot of factors that have shaped me into the person I am and thus a person whom would want to do therapy work.

First and foremost I am extremely fortunate in many ways. My family and I never had much in the way of physical wealth or possessions. We never lacked for anything, but we never had many of the extras that so many people seem to covet. What I did have and still do have is a loving home and family.

One of the most fortunate aspects of my childhood and early adult hood was that I had five living grandparents all in mostly good health. I had my paternal and maternal grandparents, and a maternal great-grandmother. I did not lose any of them until I was nearly 19 years old, and as of the time I write this only have my maternal grandparents. All five of these people were unique, different, and influential people in my life. They taught me many lessons, and even as an adult they have stuck with me and I hope I do them justice. None of my grandparents were or are perfect, but all of them were and are good honest people who did the best they could and taught their children and grand-children to do the same. As I don’t use specific names outside of my own, my wife’s, and our pets, I will give my grandparents this same discretion, and I will refer to them all by terms of endearment created by my sister when she was a child.

Great Grandma (no term of endearment here, I guess Sis wasn’t that creative) lived on her own until I was well into my teens and moved to assisted living not long before I graduated High School. She was a healthy opinionated woman whom spent a lot of time telling me stories while the adults were debating and my sister was off in a back bedroom with our second cousin having girl talk. Many of the stories involved my great grandfather who passed away seven years before I was born. I heard these same stories from Grandma and Grandpa Mobo (a little more creative Sis) and my own parents. Since I remember her telling them to me and since she was the oldest I give her credit for the lessons they embodied. She told me how during the Depression, he would come home from work wearing a ragged old shirt and hungry from not eating lunch that day. Not an uncommon thing in the depression, but there was one issue, he left that morning in a new or at least not ragged shirt, and with a lunch pail that was filled with lunch. When he did this and it happened more than once he would come across a guy down on his luck and would literally give him the shirt off his back and his lunch as well. She always told me afterwards that was the man he was, the man your grandpa is, and the man I should be. These were my first lessons of compassion, and I have held on closely to those stories, and have been re told those stories many, many times by my parents and grandparents without the Great Grandma addition at the end. I have always tried to live up to this standard.

Great Grandma was healthy throughout most of my childhood and I spent one week a summer with both sets of my grandparents including a visit to her home during those visits. We would see her as well on special events and holidays. When my Great Grandmother was no longer able to care for herself in her own home she moved to an assisted living apartment. I still went to see my grandparents in the summer and Great Grandma came to respective homes for the two holidays she spent at the apartment. Being a typical teenager, I was too wrapped up in my own activities and failed to make the time to go see her once even though I might have been at my grandparents only a few blocks away. I was always anxious to get home, back to friends and whatever I might be doing. I have always regretted this lapse in judgment. That regret, the stories of compassion she shared with me combined with my parents influence I have since always tried to make time to spend time with senior citizens in my community rather they are related to me or not. This like the therapy work I have got to do with Gopher so far should not be considered ‘self-sacrificing’ as I assure you the stories I have heard, and the lessons I have learned and are still hearing and learning far outweigh any movie, book or gadget I would have filled these hours with.

Grandpa Mobo has always been and still is a simple man. Taking after my Great Grandfather he is kind and generous. He is quiet, not in voice as an internal ear injury from the Korean Conflict makes him speak very loudly. Quiet in that he will tell you his opinions and thoughts, but not as freely as some people, the conversation has to be directed at him. I did not take after him in this way as I typically freely express my opinion, solicited or unsolicited. Grandma Mobo also is not like him either and she freely offers her opinions and thoughts even after two strokes have taken her ability to communicate effectively. Both Grandma and Grandpa Mobo taught me compassion for my fellow human not in discussion, but in their actions in and around their community. Grandpa Mobo also taught me the necessity of honesty and hard work. Every summer when we visited I got to see my Grandfather work as he would take me out on his tank wagon hauling fuel to farms in the area and I saw that man work very hard sometimes from before sun up until well after the sunset. This was especially true during the floods of 93 when he no longer hauled to the washed out farmer but to the crews repairing the roads and railroads damaged in the flood.

Grandpa Cow was a famer and taught me to love animals and nature. Some of my first memories of him are of bottle feeding calves, feeding literally his hundreds of cats. Going out on the three wheeler looking for deer, turkeys, pheasants and anything else we could see. He would get so upset when our adventures didn’t give him a chance to see much beyond tracks. He could be a difficult man at times and the only time I saw him upset was when an animal was ill or killed. He often showed more compassion to the animals than I believe he showed my father growing up. Grandma Cow was equally compassionate toward animals although sometimes annoyed by the number of cats. She was also a unique individual in many ways. My Grandfather who would often sit quietly or take a nap, she was his opposite and very boisterous. I don’t think there was ever a time when you would not know what was on her mind. She took me on my first visits although without animals. We would go through the countryside visiting this neighbor and that neighbor often widowed women. She would talk with them, wish them well and always had stories to tell me about them once we left. The stories were not always flattering, but you knew what was on her mind, and she would go on and tell me how I should respect the older members of the community and listen to the stories they had to tell, as some of them had truly lived.

My parents carried on many of these ideals and continued to teach me others. My family is known for one thing, love us or hate us we don’t seem to know a stranger. We all will stop and talk to everyone. One of my favorite people to talk with was an old man in Kansas; he has long since passed away but he used to live in a senior apartment near our house. He would take up residence on a bench in front of the furniture store and I remember running up and sitting next to him, I remember his hats and cane, I wish I could remember his stories but I was very young. My mom and dad would irritatingly at the time stop and talk with people like him for what seemed to be hours, but as I have grown into an adult myself I find myself taking after therm.

Mom and Dad taught me another lesson probably unbeknownst to both of them. They owned a small flower shop for many years. My mother was an insane perfectionist who would annoy all of us in the 13 plus years of the business I don’t think anything went out the door without her fingerprints. Surprisingly my parent’s marriage survived this as it would irritate my dad to no end. I think the reason it did fine, cause sorry to say Dad, you would do the same thing. A flower shop is an odd place, large quantities of flowers are sent either at the best of times or the worse of times. My mother and my father were always especially anal retentive on the latter, the funeral flowers. My parents became known in the area for their unique tributes to the recently departed. You name it they did it, from full out three dimensional farming or hunting scenes in the center of a casket piece to floral images of horses tractors, cars etc. Mom and Dad were especially proud of these, and with all of their funeral pieces always took extra care, yes it was smart business, but if you took a moment to watch mom and dad you would see it was much more. They always put extra time and effort to make these pieces right, it was their own way of helping the families most of whom they knew well deal with a time of great sadness. Mom and Dad probably don’t know they taught me this, but I am thankful to bear witness to that level of compassion.

So all of those people shaped me into the person I am today, their lessons direct and indirect I was fortunate to have. I had been familiar with therapy dogs for a number of years and had mentioned to Carla I wanted to do it someday to give back to my community as my grandparents and parents did in their own way. After Carla and I had this discussion we were put in a difficult position, our little niece was born with multiple heart defects, and surgery was going to be needed. We couldn’t do anything for my sister and her husband but be there and try to hide our concern and exude confidence. She is doing well now, but on the day of her surgery there were a couple therapy dog teams visiting the hospital. The distraction it provided my grandparents, my parents, others in the entourage was truly amazing. That day confirmed it for me and I could not wait until life would give me that chance. What I didn’t know was the package would come as Gopher, and the lessons and insight that little pup of only 2.5 years would give me.