I spend a lot of time visiting with Gopher. Taking time away from my own home and family, sometimes becoming more emotionally involved than I should. It is hard not to become attached, I had the pleasure of having lunch with a friend and peer of mine who after her first year of visiting one location has grown to love the children her and her partner are working with. I understand this feeling all too well. Just the other day I was visiting a patient who had a conversation with Gopher stating, "I am very tired Gopher, not sure how much longer I can go on. You are a good dog, will you please come back and visit my (partner) when I am gone. I want to see our next anniversary, but not sure if I can." It took every last bit of strength I had to keep my composure until I was safely in my car, I have been visiting the patient for 8 months and have seen the decline as well as reminders of my own family, I know that I have begun to lose my professional objectivity.
Why do Gopher and I do this? The reasons are numerous. The moments I have shared with patient and family. The tears that Gopher's fur has dried, the sheer joy he has brought to persons in some of the most difficult situations in life. These have had a profound impact on me, shaped the way I think and see the world. Not too mention the excitement and pleasure Gopher has in his own work. One thing about me that hasn't changed is that I believe strongly that my day is wasted if I do not spend at least one part of it help another person (human or animal).
Why do I think it has such impact? This question was posed to me recently by a reporter for a college paper who was taking images and writing a story on the therapy animals visiting campus for finals week. I quoted the typical studies on blood pressure, endorphin release these are concrete easy to explain. My science education draws me to them. It is more difficult to explain the impact I have seen Gopher have these last three years of working. The stories sometimes too numerous, too emotional to get across in a sentence or two. It is one of the reasons I began writing about my experiences here, and also to hopefully get a few more people to join Gopher and I as there is more work than teams available. This week a few of our peers went to Connecticut to help the way a therapy animal can, to provide moments of comfort. Their mission is simple, be present, keep your partner safe. They will and have spent time in groups, and also one on one with grief counselors and their patients. It is just one of those impacts that are hard to describe, a person will begin a dialogue with an animal present more willingly and easily than on their own. I have seen Gopher do this, the person sits seeming to search for words, you can feel the tension in them and then Gopher leans into them. They give a weak smile and a laugh and begin petting and in a few moments they begin talking.
These animals will not give more than comfort, but they will allow a dialogue to begin between patient and therapist. The dialogue that is started allows them to work through their difficult emotions and start examining how they may heal. Time and realization are the only things that can heal deep wounds, a therapy animal helps start the conversation. The why? It is due to endorphin release and decreased blood pressure, but the HOW, is far more interesting than the why and much more difficult to explain.