By Laura Berton-Botfeld
Illustration by Kate Miller
IT STARTED AS A ROUTINE TUESDAY MORNING, with no hint that by the end of the day I would change a little girl's life.
As I walked with Apollo, my 90-pound apricot standard poodle, down a corridor of UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, a man urgently waved me down. "Is that a therapy dog?" he asked. "Yes," I responded. "My daughter is in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit," he said. "Would you please come visit her?"
I had only been in the PICU a few times before, and I was nervous about going, but how could I say no?
After getting a doctor's approval, I entered the room. There was a child of about 8 years old; I will call her Helen. She was hooked up to so many machines and tubes, that my first concern was making sure Apollo didn't step on any of them. The little girl's eyes were wide open and blank. She was in a coma of unknown origin that had gone on for more than two weeks. Seeing her like that was more than I had anticipated, and I didn't know if I could face this situation. But I looked at my dog, brave and valiant as ever, and he gave me a burst of strength.
Apollo took up his usual position at the patient's bed, and Helen's father propped her up so she could be close to the dog. He then took her small hand and put it on Apollo's head, saying over and over, "Helen, there's a dog named Apollo here."
Then something happened, something I had never seen before. Apollo seemed to stare into the deep abyss of Helen's beautiful but blank blue eyes. His gaze was so intense, that I was afraid he might lick her face, and I had to pull him away. But for a moment, there was definitely some strange sort of connection between the two.
We stayed in the room another hour or so, with Apollo lying quietly at the foot of the bed, and then left to continue our rounds.
A little more than an hour later, Jack Barron, director of the UCLA People-Animal Connection program, called me. Helen's nurse had called, he told me, asking if Apollo and I were still in the hospital. Shortly after we had left her room, Helen had woken up from her coma. "Where's Apollo?" she asked, as her eyes flickered back to life. I was dumbstruck. In the room with her, there seemed to be no sign of consciousness in her still form, and I didn't think Helen had heard a thing.
Several weeks later, Helen was fully recovered. I had an opportunity to talk with her on the phone, and she told me that Apollo was the only memory she had from her coma experience. All she remembered was being surprised to see a dog's face right in front of hers, and it made her want to laugh but no sounds would come out. Her next memory was of waking up.
Then I spoke with Helen's father. He told me that in the hospital, he didn't believe his daughter would ever come back. As each day went by, he said, he feared he was losing more and more of her. He said he had been praying for a miracle. He believed Apollo was the answer to his prayer.
I thought back to the time when I was very ill as a child. I remember lying in my hospital bed, lonely and afraid, when I saw a woman walking down the hallway with a golden retriever. The comfort of seeing the face of a friendly dog lifted my spirits so much, that I knew at that moment it was something I wanted to do if I recovered. Many years later, I was the one visiting ill patients, but I never really realized the impact those visits could make. Until I met Helen.
Since that time, I've seen people with dementia form complete sentences when Apollo comes near. I've seen a little girl's fist, spastically clenched tight for days, open as he licked her hand. I've seen the suffering of so many people eased by his presence.
Sometimes I lie awake wondering what would have happened to Helen if Apollo and I had not been walking down that corridor on that day. I will never fully understand what took place between them, what they saw in each other's eyes, and why that is the only moment she remembers. But I do know this: Dogs, with their uncanny ability to comfort and connect with people in sensitive and intuitive ways, help patients heal.
Laura Berton-Botfeld and Apollo have been volunteers with UCLA People-Animal Connection since 2005.
For more information about UCLA People-Animal Connection, go to: www.uclahealth.org/PAC