Sullivan Cole’s tiny head is a tangle of yellow, red and blue wires as he clutches Fierce, a 12-year-old Chihuahua, with all his might. His bright green Minecraft pajamas drag the floor as he follows me around his room at MUSC’s Children’s Hospital.
“Are you the Grinch?” he asks. He loves that movie, his mother tells me.
It’s a fair question because, after all, I’m wearing a lime green onesie, the hood of which has the face of the aforementioned curmudgeon on it and the words “The Grinch” emblazoned on the chest in that classic Seuss script. But it’s also a fair question because unbeknownst to Sullivan, I complain about the stupidest stuff. All. The. Time.
“Yes,” I say, the tiniest of cracks in my voice. And then I can’t speak. My mind is bathed in guilt, because now I’m not thinking about Sullivan and his family. About their battle. Their struggle with the unknown. No. I’m thinking about how my kids are at school, probably out on the playground, running around, screaming and laughing at this very same moment, living healthy, normal lives. Then the guilt deepens because I think about how I always get on them for stupid things, like forgetting to turn off the lights when they leave a room or chewing with their mouths open.
“So, is this Max?” Sullivan asks, mercifully tearing me away from my thoughts as he gestures toward the little dog in his arms.
I nod and hand him a plush horse the size of his head, which he happily trades for Fierce. Marybeth Myers, Fierce’s mom and one of the nearly 100 pet therapy volunteers for MUSC, gently takes her pup back and wishes Sullivan happy holidays.
How I have the opportunity to meet Sullivan is thanks to Cathy Bennett, director of MUSC’S Pet Therapy program. She let me tag along with her and more than a dozen dogs and their owners during the Pet Therapy Parade – with only one caveat: I had to dress up as the Grinch. It’s a small price to pay for the opportunity to be involved in the annual tradition that rounds up as many volunteers and canines as possible. The pups are dressed in hilarious holiday-themed costumes and then spend half the day touring the children’s hospital, giving out presents and a wide variety of furry shoulders to lean on.
“This event is a time for everybody to forget where they are,” Bennett says. “I think it’s just a feel-good moment for everybody.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pets “provide invaluable health benefits to their human companions.” Studies have shown that they can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, pain levels and most importantly, the feeling of loneliness. So, it’s no wonder this event is a huge hit with patients, families and staff alike.
“I cannot tell you how much this means to everybody,” one nurse says, wiping away tears. “You just don’t have any idea how great this is. For all of us.”
In room after room, we encounter kids like Sullivan. Some are able to move, dragging their IVs and tubes around with them as they shuffle. Some aren’t even able to get out of bed. No matter their situation, it's up to us, as a part of the Pet Therapy Parade, to try to transport them somewhere else – even if just for a moment – by giving them a smile, a stuffed animal, time to love on a dog.
It’s a very tiny gift, but in the big picture, it’s huge. Sure, some of these kids will be fortunate enough to make it home in time for Christmas. But the sad truth is many will not. They’ll take all the smiles they can get.
One floor up from Sullivan is 13-year-old Claire Trowbridge. She’s a huge soccer fan, with bright, energetic eyes that flash a glimpse of her competitiveness. In August, Claire and her family found out she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Right now, Claire doesn’t care about attacking midfielders or mutating cells. She’s solely focused on Jazz and Mercy, two gigantic black and white Newfoundlands with enough fur between them to make a third dog.
“They are so soft,” she says with a smile almost as big as the dogs she’s squeezing.
The disease Claire is battling has an 80% cure rate, her mom tells me. Though those odds are strongly in her favor, her mom says that what really buoys the family’s spirit is Claire’s attitude. “She is so tough it’s incredible,” her mother Laura says. “Her positivity through all this has been tremendous.”
This visit is a scheduled one, she says. Medicine to help battle the cancer. “But they’re not all like this,” she says. “Sometimes you aren’t this lucky.”
Lucky. It’s a word I have heard a lot today.
It’s hard to reconcile that word with the fact that these parents are in a hospital with kids who are really sick. As humans, all we’re really trying to do in this world is make sense of things. But when the very things we’re trying to decipher don’t have satisfying answers, it can be unsettling.
Like why does one kid have a playdate while the other gets chemotherapy? Why can one kid skip and hop and another will never be able to feed himself? Why does one family get to play basketball in the driveway while another sleeps in chairs in the ICU?
It’s easy to get discouraged by these kinds of questions, so it’s important that we lean on the things we do understand. The things that make sense to us. Things like family and friends. And yeah, some really cute pooches don’t hurt either.
“To see dogs wearing elf ears or dressed as Santa Claus, it has a tendency to make you stop and remember what this season is all about,” Bennett says.
And at the end of the day, when all the dogs are gone and the presents opened, we turn to the ones who are with us day after day. We rely on them for their love and support – and the words they speak.
Words like “lucky.”
It’s that word that, in particular, rings over and over in my brain. And I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve been looking at this all wrong. Surrounding me are sick kids. But immediately thinking of my own healthy ones shouldn’t make me feel bad. And while I might never be able to answer all the whys that echo inside my head, they can serve to remind me that it’s our love that keeps us sane. Binds us. Gives us hope. Reminds us that we are all lucky in our own way. Lucky to have kids that forget to turn off the lights. Lucky to have strong ones that ignore the electrodes taped to their heads. Lucky to be in this together.
Because, as a few wise kids once taught me, it’s not about the hand you’re dealt but how you handle it that truly matters the most. And it doesn’t hurt when there’s a dog to snuggle with, too.
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