The Lesson

Like many of you, animals have always played a significant role in my life. They’ve taught me how to love deeply and purely, they’ve taught me how to navigate moments of impatience, they’ve taught me how to overcome fears that seemed insurmountable. But, one of the best lessons I’ve learned from animals is the importance of doing the right thing, even if it is against the rules.

When I was in my late twenties I worked briefly as a recreational therapist at a nursing facility. The unit I worked on housed patients who ranged from having dementia to those who needed short-term assistance while recovering from surgery or injury. Most of the patients were very subdued, either from cognitive decline or from pain medication. They remained in their rooms quietly with their TVs on, barely acknowledging me, if at all, when I entered to say hello. Judy, on the other hand, was quite a different story. As I entered her room for the first time, I found her laying in her bed. She immediately turned her head in my direction and started engaging me in conversation. The tone in her voice was familiar, for I’ve heard it coming out of me before. It was the tone of gratitude to someone really acknowledging your presence after a long time of feeling invisible. In the nursing facility, the staff was accustomed to working with patients who were nominally responsive or unconscious, so they tended to treat everyone who came in the same way, working with them as bodies to attend to, but not as individuals. Judy was longing for someone to come in and just see her, not as a patient, not even as a petite, grey haired woman in her early 70s. But, as the vibrant individual she was.

After introducing myself, I pulled up a chair alongside Judy’s bed and asked her to tell me about how she got there. She explained that she had been married for most of her adult life. She and her husband had raised their children in a home filled with animals. As far back as she could remember, she had lived with at least one dog. Her eyes glowed as she recounted some of the antics. 

After her children were grown, Judy and her husband decided to sell their home and move to a boat. The two of them always saw themselves as very capable, self-sufficient people and the adventure of sailing around the area in their retirement was one they both relished. Her only requirement was that she have a dog on the boat, which she did. 

After only a year of this new living situation, her husband unexpectedly died, leaving Judy on the boat with her medium sized dog Timbo. It was at that moment she reached to the side of her bed and grasped a photo to show me of her adorable, grey, scruffy coated Timbo, his head cocked to the side. He had a happy grin stretched across his mouth, with his pink tongue jutting out in mid pant. 

Judy told me that she made a new life for herself on the boat with Timbo. She felt confident in her ability to maintain the boat and was happy to have Timbo as her companion. But, Judy’s children were not so happy with her living situation. They wanted her to sell the boat and move in with one of them or move to a retirement community. Judy was having none of that. Being independent was something she had always valued and she liked the challenge of being on the boat.

All that changed in a brief moment. She and Timbo were on deck when the boat rocked, catching them both off guard. Timbo slid off the deck into the water and in attempting to grab him, Judy fell on the deck instantly breaking bones throughout her body. Judy had known that she broke bones rather easily, as she had broken a few in recent years, but this fall left her so injured she was forced to be transported to the hospital where she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis. Her bones were so brittle that even a slight bump now could shatter them. 

While she was in the hospital, her children moved all of her belongings off the boat, telling her she could no longer live there. What was even worse, they placed Timbo in a new home, telling her it was just too dangerous to have a dog around her who could jump on her, potentially breaking more bones. As Judy recalled this news, my heart sank, knowing that not only had her treasured independence ended, but her life companion had been ripped away from her, without even giving her a chance to say goodbye. 

As I looked at Judy, her eyes glistened with tears. Mine did too. Then she sank deep in her covers as I watched depression wrapped her up in its thick coat. That’s when I told her the next day I was scheduled to bring my dog, Zoe, to the facility. Zoe was a female Australian Shepherd and was a certified therapy dog. I asked Judy if she would like a visit from Zoe and Judy’s eyes lit up like a fireworks show as she emphatically said, “Yes!”

The next day I returned to work with Zoe by my side. My routine was to go through the patients’ rooms, who enjoyed seeing a dog, for brief visits. More often it was the family members who were visiting who engaged with Zoe, taking a moment to throw a ball for her or to scratch her on the chin, allowing her to provide a much-needed respite from the worry about their family member. As I approached Judy’s room I saw a large handwritten sign on her door informing all staff that this patient was not to get out of bed unescorted for any reason.

I opened the door and stepped in to find Judy in a greyed room, illuminated only by the window light sneaking around from the shuttered blinds. She was awake, but so withdrawn, I barely recognized her as the woman I spoke with the day before. Once again, I pulled up my chair to the side of her bed to sit, Zoe laying at my feet. I asked her what happened. 

Judy explained that late the previous night she woke up and had to go to the bathroom. The door to the bathroom was about ten feet from her bed. She said she was just so tired of having everyone treating her like an invalid, so instead of calling for a nurse, she got out of the bed on her own, feeling capable of walking herself to the bathroom. Unfortunately, in the process, she lost her balance and fell. The nurse on duty found her laying on the ground helpless and proceeded to yell at her for getting out of bed. Sadly, Judy had fractured several more bones in the fall. I clearly remember her looking at me with eyes pleading for understanding as she said, “I only wanted to go to the bathroom by myself.” Though her body wasn’t cooperating, her spirit was just as strong and independent as ever. The nurse yelling at her, as she lay sprawled on the floor as if she were an incompetent imbecile, was the final insult to her soul.

At that point I brought her attention to Zoe, who had been silently waiting for her cue to interact. The light of the fireworks display was restored to Judy’s eyes as she said, “Oh, put her up on the bed with me!” 

Bringing an animal into a healthcare facility is always a tricky thing. There are lots of rules and regulations that must be followed. Working with older populations, it’s important to be aware the even the gentle grazing of claws on thinning human skin can lacerate it. And in this case, I was with a patient who had such fragile bones that the risk was high of Zoe stepping on her or banging into her and breaking another bone, not to mention me losing my job. I looked at Judy covered with bruises and cuts from her previous falls and I couldn’t justify taking the chance of Zoe accidentally hurting her more.

I told Judy I could put Zoe up on the chair next to the bed so they would be at the same height, but I couldn’t put her in the bed. I lifted Zoe on to the chair and Judy began stroking the soft fur around Zoe’s face and neck. Hearing a noise behind me, I turned to see the charge nurse walking passed the door, eyeing Zoe suspiciously by Judy’s bed.

Judy, being like any self-respecting dog lover who had been separated from her dog, simply insisted she wanted Zoe up on the bed where she could lay next to her. I felt for her. I knew I would want the same thing if I were in her shoes. I knew I would not care about rules or any potential damage a dog might cause, because what the heart wants, the heart wants. I struggled with what to do. If it was just some silly rule that had no meaning, that was one thing. But, this woman was fragile, Zoe really could hurt her even by accident and I really could lose my job. I could even set the facility up for a law suit. Yes, those were all the thoughts running through my head as I got up and quietly closed the door to the room. 

I looked at Zoe and using my animal communication skills told her it was important to be gentle moving around Judy. Then I gave Zoe the go ahead to move from the chair on to the bed. To may astonishment, I witnessed Zoe moving in almost slow motion, carefully watching where she placed each paw, sizing up where was the spot to lay down without putting any pressure on Judy and finally coming to a rest just along Judy’s side. Judy slipped her arms around Zoe, as Zoe lay there motionless, just allowing herself to be held by this stranger. They lay like that for ten minutes. At that point I was getting uneasy with the door closed that someone could come in at any moment. So, I removed Zoe from the bed and put her back on the chair and opened the door. The feelings of love and sadness were palpable in the air. We sat there, one fellow dog lover to another, knowing the profound joy of resting with a beloved animal by your side. Knowing the healing energy they can offer as you run your fingers through their fur and knowing the profound pain of losing that connection. 

I brought my gaze to Zoe, feeling more gratitude than I could imagined was possible. She played her part beyond perfection and my heart swelled with love for her. Judy thanked me and Zoe and I knew she meant it from the bottom of her heart. As we left the room, I saw the charge nurse glaring in my direction, as I quietly moved down the hall to the next room. 

At the end of the day, as Zoe and I were preparing to go home, I bent down to give her a hug. I told her she had helped me do what was right for Judy and I was grateful she had my back so we could buck the system in the name of love. 

The next day I arrived at work and Judy was not there. All I learned was that her family had moved her to another facility, though I’m certain it didn’t’ have anything to do with Zoe’s visit. 

I’ve thought of Judy over the years, wondering what happened to her. Wondering if she ever snuggled up with another dog as she drifted off to sleep. And, I’ve thought if she hadn’t, then how honored I was that Zoe and I could give her one last chance to nuzzle with a canine soul. I circle back to this story to remind myself that some good deeds do go unpunished, and live in our hearts always.

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