Doing good, with a dog at his side

08/05/2010 12:00 AM |

When I was young, healthy and poor, I disliked hospitals. The sight of one made me sick. After all, that’s where sick people gathered. I had no business there. I would never have wanted to live near one. It could be contagious! Why be reminded of the less happy sides of life? Hospitals, jails, correctional facilities, not for me.

As I grew older, less healthy and slightly less poor, opportunities came to enter the hushed world of the sick when a relative or a friend struggled for recovery in the hands of doctors and nurses. Hospitals also became for me the place where babies were born. That’s how I met Adeline Witherspoon when she was a couple of days old. Her father and I drove to Riverhead so I could see mother and child. Adeline is now a college student and goes by the name of Addy. She works this summer at the Soundview restaurant in Southold. She has lovely manners and a smile that reminds me of her beautiful grandmother, Rita, my companion for so many years, but alas, not with us anymore.

I’m not growing older today. I am old. I’m sort of healthy and definitely not rich. That will be for another life. I have come to accept hospitals. After all, that’s where the sick gather. I could be one of them. Whenever I needed help, that’s where I went or was sent, not always willingly, by my friend Nancy, who may have saved my life.

I’ve been a visitor, I’ve been a patient, and now, lacking the skills to become a doctor or a nurse, I am a volunteer. Not alone but in the company of my dog, Nina. After months of training, filling out long application forms, after a physical exam and veterinary proof of good health and disposition, after being fingerprinted, photographed and given ID cards, Nina and I were ready for a first walk-through at NewYork-Presbyterian. No blue jeans allowed. I wore cream pants and Nina sported a red vest with the words “NewYork-Presbyterian Paws for Patients.”

For the first time in my life I walked into a hospital as part of a therapy dog team, my ID card around my neck and my frisky, furry dog at my side. The security guard did not stop us. We belonged. We checked ourselves in at the volunteers’ office. Nurses, doctors, visitors, patients on their way home smiled at Nina. “Can I pet her, can I?” Back at the reception desk I asked for the therapy dog book, where I would find requests for dog visits. All along I was accompanied by my guide on this first day, Marlene Shapiro, and her white Havanese, an eager little dog who showed Nina the way. Next time I’d be on my own. There was a request for a cardiac patient on the fourth floor. We had a visit with that patient, who took the Havanese on her lap and petted Nina’s head. Nina obliged.

Nurses in the cardiac unit greeted us and were delighted to welcome the two healthy and friendly dogs. As word of the canine guests got around, more requests were made for their visits. After about an hour Marlene suggested we end our mission for the day. One hour of visits is more or less what we should expect of Nina and her sisters and brothers, spending five to 10 minutes with each patient. And hands should be washed after each visit.

Nina and I walked the 22 blocks back to my apartment. A very warm day. It didn’t matter. I looked at Nina as if she were a very special dog. I looked at the luxury dogs — the idle dogs who were not volunteers — just being walked by owners or dog-walkers, as if they were a bunch of pampered amateurs. Nina belonged to the elite of dogs with a purpose, with a job to do. The job of helping sick people get better, of bringing smiles to their faces. Don’t laugh; it’s real. A few weeks ago, Nina and I visited Lawrence Medical Center in Bronxville. When I asked a patient if he had a dog, he said, “Yes, many years ago. It was a beautiful dog. But he was run over by a car. It broke my heart. I could never get a dog after that.” He held Nina’s head and as we left he added, “God bless you, God bless Nina for your visit.” I will not forget that man.

Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. E-mail: [email protected]