My Inner Grinch

I have been known to indulge my inner Grinch during the holiday season. I guess you could call it my inner kvetch during Chanukah. And yes, I still binge watch Hallmark Channel movies as an antidote. But I’m afraid I may have weakened. I was about to put up a post that had absolutely nothing to do with this time of year. Then I realized I’d be sharing it on Christmas and I caved.

In retrospect I should have saved the post about caroling at UCLA or the one about the Adopt a Family program at Providence Hospital. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that far ahead. Instead I want to share a day with the Doods that for me epitomizes what this season should be about.

 

 

 

On Thursday morning we went to the Adult Health Center. There was a Christmas tree and there were some decorations but nothing brightened up the large room like Elbee and Gus. It didn’t matter if the participants were old or young, suffering from bipolar disorder or depression, so many just wanted to pet the dogs or hug them. A few followed us around.

An elderly woman who seemed distracted suddenly focused and told me they made her so happy. Another whispered in Spanish that they were angels.

ELBEE Finally somebody got it right.

I also found out that the quiet man who smiled for the first time in a year when he was with the dogs a few weeks ago, only smiles when they’re visiting.

After leaving the center, we drove over to see my dear friend Roberta, the one who has been battling brain cancer. She is a warrior if ever I’ve seen one. Never a complainer, she admitted how rough the treatment has been. After we chatted for awhile, the Doods took over. They love her and she loves them. I know she sneaks them treats whenever I’m not looking. For a brief time they make her forget about everything except them.

On the way home, with my two exhausted dogs in the car, it struck me just how many gifts they had given. Every single one was unselfish and priceless.

The next morning at a yoga class, Rebecca, the teacher, suggested dedicating our practice to some purpose or intent. Surprisingly, the first thought that came into my head was family and not dogs so I was kind of torn.

ELBEE That’s not funny.

Then Rebecca suggested focusing on gratitude and it made perfect sense. I apologize for any cliches or repetition but hey where’s your holiday spirit?

Working with the dogs, especially during this season, has taught me to be grateful. Seeing so many people who are slowed down by illness or injury, I feel fortunate to have my health. I am appreciative that I can write these posts even when I struggle. And yes, I truly am grateful for my family and friends.

I realized that being with the dogs as they help so many people is apparently giving therapy to my holiday spirit or lack there of. Uh oh. Are they killing my inner Grinch?

 

 

 

 

 

An Embarrassment of Recognition

This was a very special week. As you may have seen on Facebook, the People Animal Connection at UCLA was honored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In the words of Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, “We had such fun recognizing the amazing and heartwarming work of one of the most comprehensive Animal-Assisted and Activity programs in the nation.”

Let’s face it. I’ve never been personally invited to a supervisors meeting and there I was in the front row with Gus and some of his canine co-workers. Several of us were awarded certificates, but we all know who the real heroes are. ”

ELBEE Excuse me, I wasn’t invited? 

 

GUS I was thrilled to be there and I don’t mean to be a complainer but do you see how Pack Leader is holding me and how Tommy’s person Donna is holding him? It’s happened before. They really need to work on that.

To my surprise, I also received an honor from UCLA Health this week. Last Friday, Erin Rice, the wonderful woman who heads PAC, said that she’d meet me and the Doods at the hospital on Monday morning. Having been busy with family or more likely having a senior moment, I asked, “for what?” She didn’t want to give it all away but simply said that it was for an award.

Once we got there, we were ushered into an auditorium where there was a sizeable crowd of people, including the Chief Patient Experience Officer and the Chief Medical Officer! Three of the therapists that we’ve been lucky enough to work with for years were in the audience and came up too offer their support and to congratulate us. In my usual spirit of honesty, I admit that I was still somewhat clueless.

As the ceremony progressed, Erin and a few other people said some beautiful things about us. They talked about special patient interactions with the dogs and about some of the work we’d done outside of the hospital like the candlelight vigil and the anti-bullying group. It was the most surreal experience. I was moved to tears.

I found out that I was receiving the CICARE award. I admit that I’ve been struggling about explaining what the award is for because I didn’t want to brag too much but I am so honored and humbled by it that I’m going to share. I was informed that it’s for “healing humankind, one patient at a time by improving health, alleviating suffering and delivering acts of kindness.”

If I have done any of that it’s only because I have been fortunate enough to have Charley and then Gus and Elbee at my side. As I’ve acknowledged before, I truly feel privileged to hold their leashes while they work. I may be the facilitator but they are the healers and the miracle workers. I also want to give a special thank you to Charley. Although he has been gone for several months, his spirit still guides me.

 

 

Full Circle

Recently I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful young man named Van. He and his mom and dad were the family that took care of Gus before he came into my life. When circumstances forced them to give him up, there was a line of people wanting to adopt him.

Fortunately, recognizing that his temperament was perfect for a therapy dog, and having heard about Charley and Elbee, they chose me. Along with the joy of bringing him home, I felt so much responsibility with the trust they’d placed in me to give him a productive life. The good news is that he has far exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Over the past three years, I’ve kept in touch with the family, kind of an open adoption. I’ve shared Gus’s progress from passing his Pet Partner’s test with a perfect score to his very first day in the hospital. I also let them know about the more challenging situations he worked with Charley like the special needs camp and the anti-bullying group from Compton. I may have trained Gus but Charley was his true teacher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was surprised when I received an email from Van and his mom asking if he could interview me. He’d been chosen as a finalist in a junior journalism contest and the topic they’d been given was “A Hometown Hero.” Since he knew all about my work with the dogs and even the accident and my bodybuilding past, he thought I’d be a good subject. Needless to say, I was very flattered. We arranged for them to come over to my house.

ELBEE Excuse me. We all know I’m the hometown hero. I just don’t do interviews. I let my accomplishments speak for themselves.

 

Although it had been over three years since Van, now an impressive eleven year old, had seen Gus, their connection was instantaneous. It was if they were long lost friends.

While his parents went for a walk, Van and I sat in the dining room with the Doods at our feet as I answered his very insightful questions. What struck me as we talked was how we’d come full circle. I know it was difficult for Van when they had to find a new home for Gus but he could see how well things had turned out.

I felt such gratitude. I was grateful that Van viewed me as a hero for doing the work that I love. I was grateful they’d entrusted Gus to me. And above all, on that particular morning I was tremendously grateful that, with a little help from Charley, I’d been able to give Gus the life that they’d envisioned for him.

 

UCLA Pups on Parade

I was in the middle of writing this when we had a massive power outage in the neighborhood. I wondered if it was the universe telling me that my post sucked. I’m going to assume it was just a result of the heat wave we’re having and “power on.”

ELBEE If that was supposed to be funny, I should be doing stand-up. 

At the risk of sounding corny and emotional, I have to say that the Fourth of July was very special this year. No matter what side of the political, social or grocery aisle (shout out to all you vegans) people were on, there was a real sense of wanting to reach out and connect with each other.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t run to have Marsha, Gus’s groomer/colorist, dye his ears and tail red and blue as soon as I knew that he was going to be in a parade. She even came up with the idea of putting paper plates over his ears to keep the color where it was supposed to be while she was applying it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE I admit that I was a little jealous until I saw that photo. Paper plates on my ears! As if!

GUS It’s the price of beauty.

Since we had to do the color a few days before the event, I sort of forgot about it until I took the dogs walking. Almost everyone we passed smiled and wished us a happy fourth. There was a pervasive sense of patriotism.

On the day of the parade, we met in Pacific Palisades with several of the other teams from the UCLA People Animal Connection. From the moment we arrived,   the atmosphere was incredibly warm and friendly. People seemed truly happy to be uniting in appreciation of America. It was a celebration of our history and our freedom.

 

I had been in the parade a couple of times but this year seemed different. The crowd was larger and if possible more enthusiastic.

 

Gus was so excited, his red and blue tail never stopped wagging. Before we started walking, he flirted with Ella, a Golden Retriever, and drooled over Gracie, a darling Chihauhau who is the smallest dog in the program in terms of size but not of heart.

As we started down Sunset Boulevard with all of the other dogs, Gus played to the crowd. He visited with spectators along the route and even did a few impromptu dance moves. With the children, he was spectacular. I have never seen so many smiling faces. Okay, once or twice he got a little tired and I had to carry him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the other two parades, Charley was by my side, greeting celebrants, young and old. As you know, we lost him this year but we also lost Tovah, another special member of PAC. She was a beautiful Dachshund who happened to be Charley’s “girlfriend.” They often worked events, including the parade, together, with Tovah riding in her wagon as she got older.

I cherish this photo of them. It will always represent the Fourth of July to me. Without even trying, Gus is once again following in his big brother’s paw prints. He’s carrying on in the tradition of Charley and Tovah, making them both proud.

 

 

 

A Different Dynamic

I confess that this post is going to be very self-indulgent.

ELBEE So what else is new?

The most painful losses in my life, other than the loss of my youth, have been my parents, my brother, and two very close friends. Losing Charley ranks right up there.

ELBEE To those of you who think that’s inappropriate (I don’t) remember that Pack Leader shared the birth of her grandson and Gus passing his therapy dog test in the same sentence.

I don’t mean that losing him hurts the same way that it hurts to lose a person. Oh who am I kidding. Of course it does. He was like my shadow and my protector.   He was a near constant presence in my everyday life. I think he considered himself my service dog but couldn’t figure out exactly what he was supposed to do for me.

Now that he’s been gone a few months, I realize just how much he orchestrated the rhythm of the the pack. I first noticed a change in the dynamics during our walks. When I used to take the three out together, Charley, by virtue of his size and personality, would get most of the attention. He could win people over in a matter of seconds. To compete, Elbee would either bark and be obnoxious or feign disinterest.

 

 

ELBEE Excuse me for expressing the two sides of my personality.

Without Charley by his side, Elbee appears larger and gets noticed a lot more. People constantly comment on how beautiful he is and are curious about his breed. Not surprisingly, he is thriving on the attention. At work he is so calm and focused, it’s like a different dog.

ELBEE Not sure if I should be flattered or offended. 

As for Gus, when he walked between the other two, he sometimes got lost in all of the hair. People couldn’t even see him. Now he struts by my side wagging his tail and smiling like the cute little diva he’s become.

Not sure if it’s my imagination or my hopefulness, but at work he seems to be showing some of Charley’s intuition. At UCLA this week, Gus was completely focused on a man sitting alone on a bench across the lobby. When he pulled me over to him, the man told me that he was nervous and stressed because his wife was having her third cancer surgery. Petting Gus, he relaxed and smiled and said that it, “made his day.”

When I come home may be the time I miss Charley’s presence the most. Riley, our senior citizen Golden is usually asleep behind the door. Elbee and Gus will run to greet me but it’s not the frenzy that it used to be. They’re excited but a little more subdued. It dawned on me that as well behaved as Charley was, he was the enthusiastic leader of the welcome home committee. He was so relieved that I was back that he made most of the noise and spurred on the other two. One of the hardest things since Charley’s passing has been not to hear that huge bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Power of Therapy Dogs

Over many years of volunteering in the neuropsych institute at UCLA, I have had the privilege of watching the Doods do some breathtaking work. I know that I often use the word “privileged” but that’s truly how I feel when I watch them coax a smile from a sad child or enable a patient to momentarily forget his pain. They offer kindness and unconditional acceptance. And they do it simply by being dogs.

ELBEE Excuse me, by being fabulous dogs. Sorry, I had to add my two cents.

Last week I shared a story about Elbee’s positive interaction with a deeply troubled child. Several people told me that it gave them deeper insight into what therapy dogs can actually accomplish. After hearing that, I decided to share another story that speaks to the great work of our pet partners.

It happened a few years ago and involved both Charley and Elbee. Rather than an immediate reaction they slowly gained the trust of a very disturbed teenager.

When we visit our regular units, we usually go into the day room with small groups of patients who want to spend time with the dogs.They gather around,  petting them or grooming them with a very soft brush I bring with me. It generally relaxes everyone and leads to easy conversation, often about the patients’ own pets.

On one particular morning in the adolescent unit, an agitated boy, who chose not to be in the room, was instead causing a major distraction. He kept running by in the hall, yelling and screaming. Occasionally he would step into the room, shout and then leave again.

What was beautiful to see was how the teens in the unit were so protective of Charley. I also want to mention the wonderful professionals working in the NPI. Although it can be a very unpredictable environment, they make sure we’re safe.

The next time we came, the same boy was again acting out but after a few minutes, he walked into the room and sat on the couch. He was slightly disruptive but quieter than he had been. Without warning, he walked over to Charley, lay down on the floor next to him and put his arms around him. The staff and even the patients in the group looked on in surprise.

On the last time that we saw the same teen, it was Elbee’s week to visit. Like it has been since Charley’s passing, it was his turn to step up. Elbee was on the floor with all of the kids, when the boy walked into the room and again sat down on the sofa. Suddenly he got up and lay down on the floor, hugging Elbee just like he had Charley. Then a moment later, I heard him whisper to Elbee, “I love you.”

 

Goodbye My Gentle Giant

 

When Charley was six months old, we were in the waiting room at the vet when a woman walked over and commented on his demeanor, saying that he would be a perfect therapy dog. The very next morning this thoughtful stranger called me with the number for the UCLA People Animal Connection. Little did I know, it was a phone call that would change my life.

Charley was my dog but as we worked together over the years, he became my friend, my partner, oh let’s face it, my soulmate. The daughters referred to him as my “other husband.” He died the same way he lived, with grace, dignity and concern for my well being. He knew that I could never make the decision to let him go so he made it for me.

In early posts I wrote about all of the training and testing, but nothing prepared me for the emotions of walking into the hospital with him for the first time. I confess that I have a basic fear of hospitals and a bit of “white coat syndrome.” Yet when I went into the hospital lobby with that big, beautiful animal by my side, I was at ease.

Charley’s first bed visit was with a patient who had been been hospitalized for quite some time waiting for a heart transplant. She looked so frail in the small bed surrounded by huge equipment. My hands were shaking as I helped Charley step gently onto the bed. As he instinctively cuddled by her side, the woman wrapped her arms around him, started to cry and then to smile, sharing how lonesome she was for her own three dogs.

I watched in wonder as Charley comforted her. Any skepticism I had about how much a dog could accomplish completely disappeared. It was the moment that I became a true believer in the healing power, or maybe magic, of therapy dogs.

Two other patients experiencing “Charley love”

 

Charley became my teacher. That first day in the hospital, he taught me to be brave. Over the more than ten years that we volunteered together, he taught me to focus and be present for the patients, families and staff members who needed us. He taught me about unconditional love.

Charley was a special soul who lived a life of joy and purpose. His kindness, intuition and ability to heal were legendary.  People still talk about the day that a woman who had been catatonic for over a week smiled and petted him. No one who experienced the Charley “lean” or the gentle grip of his big front paw ever forgot it.

At twelve, Charley was slowing down but still seemed to enjoy special events. The night before he passed, he and his mini-me Gus were visiting Bruin athletes at the UCLA Hall of Fame. He was his usual charming self and worked the room like a pro.

 

He seemed restless when we got home, so I spent most of the night sitting with him. In the morning, I left him on the bed while I went to feed the rest of the pack. When I came back upstairs, he wasn’t there. I found him in the yard. He had chosen a quiet spot under some purple flowering bushes to lay down. A half hour later he was gone. His giant heart had stopped beating.

 

 

 

Thank You Doods

As the Doods and I begin the new year together, I want to take a moment to reflect on and celebrate some of the great work that they’ve done. I had been planning to write this at Thanksgiving but they were so out of control on the holiday that I couldn’t do it.

THE DOODS OMG We acted like dogs.

Charley and Gus became quite a team this past year. Charley, older and wiser now, can still rise to special occasions with Gus as his backup. Gus contributes the energy of a two year old along with an innate sweetness.

Together they brought comfort to the students and faculty at the candlelight vigil for the murdered UCLA professor. They spent a magical morning at an all inclusive camp for special needs children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

They taught an anti-bullying group from Compton about unconditional love.

 

 

 

 

 

The week before Christmas, Charley and Gus did a holiday “meet and greet” at UCLA Medical Center. With the dogs sitting in a toy car by the tree, a car which Charley later took for a spin, the mood in the lobby changed from somber to festive. Watching them weave their magic with patients, families and staff was a true gift of the season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ELBEE Excuse me. What am I chopped liver?

I was just about to get to Elbee. He’s a bit of a diva and works better on his own. He thrives on the individual attention.

 

ELBEE I would object but she’s correct. I am rather fabulous.

One day as Elbee and I were waiting for the hospital elevator, I saw a woman pushing a wheelchair for her teenage daughter who had Downs Syndrome. After she assured me that her daughter liked dogs, I brought Elbee over to see her. As we approached, the girl got a huge smile on her face. After Elbee did a few tricks the smile grew from ear to ear. The only thing more beautiful was the look on her mother’s face.

On another occasion, a woman asked me to bring Elbee over to see her son who appeared to be severely disabled. Like the teenage girl, he was also in a wheel chair. I had no idea how much the young man understood, but as Elbee walked over and licked his hand, I said, “Oh he likes you. He’s kissing you.” It was then that the boy made a kiss toward the dog. If not for that interaction I would never have known that he completely understood what was happening. As Elbee waved good bye, the young man sent him another kiss.

As chief leash holder for the Doods, I have been privileged to see so many miracles, large and small. I never cease to be amazed at their intuition and their capacity for kindness and unconditional love, just like they showed the kids from Compton, the campers with special needs, the crowd in mourning and countless others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Holiday Heroes

 

Miracle Workers

Yesterday, Donna, my fellow Yom Kippur felon (her words not mine, although I wish I’d said them) and I decided to take Gus and Tommy to UCLA to spread a little Christmas cheer.

GUS I was there on Yom Kippur but I’m innocent. Do I need  a lawyer?

CHARLEY If you’re clueless about the Yom Kippur remarks, see Pack Leader’s October post, “Oy Vey.”

 

And it couldn’t hurt that Hanukkah and Christmas fell at the same time this year. I was thinking that it might give us some bonus points to make up for our non-observant Yom Kippur or anything else we may have done. Not to mention, what a great excuse for dressing up the dogs. They both look fabulous in red.

I also got a sign from the universe as I was heading to UCLA. The middle daughter, remember the one who likes the dogs, sent me a photo of a hair clip that she’d found while going through some old boxes. It had been given to her by my dearest friend Eileen on a Christmas long ago. As I shared in the Oy Vey post, Eileen passed away several years ago and way too young. With the sudden appearance of the clip, I could feel her smiling down on us.

A Gift from Eileen

This is a tough time of year for anyone to be in the hospital.  For parents with a sick child it’s even more difficult. How great if we could bring them a few moments of happiness.

As we crossed the threshold into the hospital, the Christmas miracles began. Suddenly stress and sadness were replaced by smiles and laughter. When we finally made it up to Pediatrics and then the PICU, I’m not sure if the staff, the patients or their families were most excited to see Gus and Tommy. Countless times we heard the words, “This makes my day.”

From the toddler in her red Christmas dress to the little girl who had brain surgery, they momentarily put aside their pain and unhappiness to pet and hug the dogs. I wish I had the words to express how moving it was to see Gus or Tommy on the bed cuddled in a child’s arms. The only things more touching were the looks on their parents’ faces.

Although Gus and Tommy barely weigh 50 pounds between them, together they brought tons of holiday love to UCLA Medical Center. I hope Eileen is proud.

MERRY CHRISTMAS                          
HAPPY HANUKKAH

An American Hero

Living in L.A. you tend to see celebrities from time to time, but it’s not every day that you meet a true hero. I want to share an encounter that seems even more meaningful in the wake of the recent anniversary of 9/11.

A few years ago at its Red Tie Affair, the Red Cross honored the UCLA People Animal Connection and Captain “Sully” Sullenberger. Charley, as well as 5 of the other furry honorees, were at our table in the grand ballroom of the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Captain Sullenberger was seated nearby.

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If you’ve read some of my posts, you may find this hard to believe. On my own, I might not have approached him, but with Charley’s leash firmly in hand, I walked over to introduce myself and say hello. He could not have been nicer. As a bonus, he and his family are dog people! When a woman tried to take cuts in line for a photo, he gently told her that Charley and I were there first.

What truly inspired me to write this today is that I just saw the movie Sully. I was familiar with the Miracle on the Hudson. I knew about Captain Sullenberger’s amazing accomplishments. I had heard him humbly and graciously accept his award at the gala. Sitting in the theatre, however, there were tears in my eyes as I watched the whole story unfold. The movie really put it into perspective. Thanks to my big, beautiful canine hero, I had enjoyed the privilege of meeting a real life American hero.