Last week Baker and I were assigned to visit the hospital’s Neuro-trauma ICU waiting room, where families with loved ones who have suffered a stroke, or been in a car accident, or have a life-threatening condition requiring intensive care pass the hours until they are allowed a few moments at bedside. The room is furnished with small groupings of chairs and couches so families have some privacy as they wait. Most of them sit quietly, gazing at the TV or reading magazines, alone with their thoughts.
It’s hard to know what to say to greet people. Most are surprised to see a dog come into the waiting room, so I begin by explaining that Baker is a therapy dog who is there to visit them if they would like. I’m learning that Baker knows by their smell whether or not they are “dog people” and want to be approached. He’s not shy about sniffing shoes and pant legs as they pat his head.
But it’s not about me making conversation, it’s about Baker making a connection and for a few moments, helping them to forget why they are really there. The first family that we visited shared that their father was dying, but “It was all in the good Lord’s hands.” I assured them that their father was getting the best of care. As they told me about their dogs, they smiled as Baker tried to head for the nearby trash can, which by late afternoon was overflowing with food wrappers.
We moved on to other families. Some were talking quietly on cell phones, or dismissed Baker with an absent-minded pat. Their sadness was like a bubble around them.
As we worked our way to the back of the room, I noticed an Asian man sitting by himself, his face contorted with worry. He looked up and seemed startled by Baker, but I noticed his expression soften as Baker made eye contact and tentatively wagged his tail. The man got up and came over to Baker, and in halting English asked if it was okay to touch him. I smiled and nodded. The man knelt down and hugged Baker for a few moments, whispering “Thank you” and making a slight bow to me as he returned to his seat.
I’ll never know the stories of what brought these people to that ICU waiting room on this particular afternoon. I just know that for a few moments, Baker helped them to transcend their sadness and feel comforted. I needn’t have worried about what to say. I learned that no matter what language you speak, everyone speaks dog.