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Sue was an ICU nurse in one of our outlying hospitals and was critically injured in a horrible automobile accident. The ICU that had been her workplace became where she lay as a patient.

The prognosis for Sue was poor. She might not make it. Her fellow nurses thought Sue should be allowed to see the one family member she had – a little long-haired chihuahua named Sophie. It was the 1990s, and hospital policies didn’t allow animals in, not even pets of terminally ill patients. Yet somehow, these very determined nurses and friends arranged for an exception.  

Sophie was brought in and laid against Sue, who was unconscious. Sophie, a model of good behavior, was permitted to snuggle for quite a while. After the visit, and for the first time, things began to turn around for Sue in a positive way. She began to show improvements.

Being reunited with Sophie had made a difference. I know this was how it happened because Sue told me. She knew her companion was there with her, loving her, needing her, and it put in Sue the will to live.

Sue made a commitment in those long days of recovery that once she was well enough, she was going to have Sophie trained to be a therapy dog. Sue wanted to be able to give others what she had been given.

Sue stayed true to that goal and Sophie became a certified therapy dog. They visited nursing homes and other facilities where therapy dogs were allowed.

Sue called and asked if she and Sophie might come for a visit to the parent hospital where I worked. The hope was to begin the change of system policy and allow therapy dogs in our hospitals. We set a time and Sue and Sophie drove for three hours to try and make a difference for patients through animal therapy.

We paid a visit to the vice president of nursing and Sue worked Sophie through obedience tests. She responded without hesitation to Sue’s every command. The convincing test I suppose was that she paid no heed to treats laid right beneath her nose until Sue gave her the signal that it was okay. Sophie proved herself trustworthy and we were given permission to visit a cancer patient who was missing her dog terribly.

Sophie regally walked the hall to the cancer care unit. She knew who she was. She wore her therapy dog tag with pride and held her head high. She paid no mind to those she passed by and wondered what a dog was doing in our hospital. Sophie looked straight ahead, headed toward her mission.

Arriving at her point of caregiving, Sophie was given the go-ahead to get up on the bed. Our patient crooned and loved on Sophie. Tears came to the patient’s eyes. It wasn’t her dog she got to see, but it was the next best thing. Sophie gave our patient comfort and emotional support. Her medicine was attention and affection. Just like she had given Sue, Sophie that day gave our patient hope for a brighter tomorrow.

I am pretty certain Sophie’s visit was the best medicine our patient received that day — maybe that week. She thanked Sophie and Sue repeatedly for coming.

I wish I could say we immediately wrote a policy for animal therapy. That didn’t happen. It takes time and patience and many departments to turn a hospital ship around. But it was a beginning. It definitely made a difference for our pet-lonely patient. It made a difference for Sue as a nurse to push the boundaries a little further on behalf of emotional support for patients. It made a difference for Sophie. Animals always know when they are loved and appreciated. Sophie knew from her training that she was contributing to patient care.

Martin Buber said, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” Once you’ve had an animal as a companion, you understand this truth. I would add it’s also about their touch. Their eyes and their touch speak love. They somehow know just what we need. Sophie knew. Sophie gave.

So God created. . .every living creature that moves. And God saw that it was good. –Genesis 1:21 ESV

You care for people and animals alike, O LORD. –Psalm 36:6

Note: Therapy dogs and service dogs are not the same. Here are some links for further understanding.