One hospital and its clients help a family stunned by tragedy pick up the pieces and begin a new life.
One evening at closing time, a woman walked in and stood in front of our glass-walled grooming area. After several minutes, I introduced myself and asked if I could do anything for her.
This experience prompted Larry to take his dog, Easy, for weekly visits at a local nursing home.
The woman was extremely thin and pale with dark circles under her eyes. Almost under her breath, she asked if "those dogs" were for sale. I explained that they were waiting for their owners to pick them up after their spa day. Still whispering, she said, "I remember how a dog helped me when I was a little girl. I think I need to get a dog."
I thought maybe I should get the police. Instead, I guided her toward the lobby and asked what kind of dog she had in mind. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, and with many tears, she told me that her husband died during the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy and that her teenage daughter with cerebral palsy wasn't "dealing with it well." The daughter had developed agoraphobia and hadn't been out of the house in months.
It occurred to me that the woman probably hadn't had the opportunity to deal with her own loss because of her daughter's needs. (In fact, I later learned that the woman had also just completed post-mastectomy chemotherapy.) She seemed overwhelmed, stressed, and exhausted.
She explained that she couldn't have a large dog that would require a lot of walking and exercise, because she didn't have the spare time. At my inquiry, she said that she had considered a cat. However, she was afraid that her daughter's hand would go into spasm while holding the cat, and the latter's desperate attempt to extricate itself might harm the girl.
As we looked at pictures in a dog breed book, she fell in love with the King Charles spaniel and bichon frise. I told her that I would contact clients who owned these dog breeds to find out what each was like to live with and which breeders they used.
I phoned a client who has a King Charles spaniel and explained the situation. She offered to call the woman and to take her spaniel to visit the woman and her daughter, so they could decide whether they liked the breed.
Next, I called another client, Larry, a burly, 30-something construction worker who's in love with his bichon frise named Easy. Upon hearing the woman's story, he became convinced that a bichon frise would improve her and her daughter's lives immeasurably. He phoned the woman that evening and arranged to take his dog to meet them within the week. I was touched by the generosity and warmth of our clients.
During the following weeks, I called the woman several times to see how she was doing and found her depressed. She hadn't had the time or energy to find a puppy.
So I was surprised when, after a few months, she called to make an appointment for her bichon frise puppy. I didn't recognize her voice—she was laughing.
Abby was adorable, and her owner was a normal, doting new pet parent. The woman said her daughter seemed a little jealous of the puppy, but that she'd soon get used to it. It was clear that the puppy was bringing joy and meaning back into the woman's life.
Since then, Abby has been spayed and groomed and has the best carrier, the cutest collar, and a life brimming with unconditional love. "Mom" is more animated, relaxed, and extroverted. And the daughter went on a car ride for the first time since losing her father.
Did Abby make all this happen? Although she was certainly instrumental, she didn't do it alone. Mom had been working long and hard to help her daughter. In addition, our clients and staff reached out to her with compassion. And because of their belief in the healing power of the companion-animal-and-owner relationship, a mother and daughter now believe in the power of pets, too.
Everyone's commitment to the well-being of both pets and people helped this family, devastated with loss and grief, to turn their situation around. They opened their door to another family member and took that first step toward living again.
Sue L. Blackburn was the practice manager at Point Vicente Animal Hospital in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., and recently moved to Austin, Texas. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.