The TOUCH (Therapy of Our Unique Canine Helpers) Dogs program is a special part of St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  Kathy Howard and her 80-pound black Labrador, Wally, have been a TOUCH therapy team since 2007, and started visiting the hospital in the fall of 2011.  Every Thursday they bring comfort and entertainment to patients, families and staff.  This week, Kathy tells From the Bedside about a special bond between Wally and Tori, a 6-year-old receiving treatment for neurofibromatosis.

Wally and Tori in the clinicI remember very well the first time Wally and Tori met.  Wally and I were in the 2nd floor lobby, just talking to kids when she walked up.  Some kids come in and they just want to pet the dog and collect a trading card.  But she was focused on him.  They were face to face.  She was petting him, enamored with him.  Other kids were coming and going, but Tori stayed where she was.   Eventually, she was the only child left, and she whispers to her mom, and they pull out this little stuffed bear.  Childrenscancer.org had given her 25 bears to give to classmates and friends to kind of bridge the gap between the fact that she has cancer and they don’t – just to make it more real – and she wanted to give Wally one as her new friend.

I didn’t see her again until a good four weeks later.  She had recently had brain surgery, and had a bandana on over her hair.  I had Wally’s trading card then, and she’s looking at it, and her parents are reading it to her, “Wally’s mom was a rescue, and Wally was born in foster care…” And she says, “That’s just like me!”  She was adopted.  And I’ll be honest – I’m looking at this little girl, who has an 8 inch long incision down the back of her neck, then looking at her parents who are beaming, and just thinking, you are such a lucky little girl.  She has a brain tumor, and at that moment, I knew she was a lucky, very loved little girl.

She hadn’t started chemo then, but a week or so later she had, and we came in and she was not happy.  Chemo was over, and it had been a rough time.  She sees Wally, and she is just beaming.  And the next week she’s saying she would have chemo every day if she could see Wally.

There was another time she was physically feeling bad, and she was in the oncology unit on a stretcher.  But she was so happy to see Wally.  So I said, “Do you want Wally to lie up there with you? “ And she says, “Oh, yes.”  So she’s reading to Wally from a book, she’s cuddling up against him.  Then the nurse practitioner comes in to do the exam—and kudos to her.  I said, “It’s time for us to go.”   But the nurse practitioner said, “No, leave him there.”  So she did the whole exam with Tori wedged against Wally on the stretcher.  Where else could you go and have that be accepted?  Where else would they understand that this dog is calming her?

We spent a long time in the room that day, so we didn’t see as many kids as we might usually.  But for Tori, that was so important that we just stay there and be with her, and just comfort her.  So it’s quality over quantity.  I think you could talk to all the TOUCH dog handlers, and they’d say the same thing.  That maybe we didn’t see as many kids, but, boy, did we make a difference in this kid’s life.  I’m a retired transplant coordinator, so it’s really nice to not do anything that is causing any pain or discomfort or anything at all.  All I’m doing is bringing a dog that makes a child’s day a little brighter.

Tori had me when she handed Wally a bear.  She obviously had a connection with the dog.  What you’re supposed to be giving to your friends, she’s giving to him.  She did get my heart, and I don’t know how to get around that.  Who knows?  Tori could decide that she’s going to be a nurse or a doctor when she grows up, and she will use that same kindness toward another child.