For me, it’s simple. At the Eucharist, Jesus gives us his whole self; we are gathered into his living, broken body. This means that my body somehow becomes part of his. God’s humility transforms my haywire muscles into a means of grace. So I go—wheelchair, service dog and all—and sit quietly with people whose brains are haywire. This is the best way I know to say thank you. I listen to stories. Sometimes I tell a story in return. When words mean nothing, I offer my presence, and my dog.
Willa loves our job. She is a 5-year-old, 50-pound Labrador retriever with a blond coat and coffee-black eyes. She was trained by Canine Partners for Life, a nonprofit organization in central Pennsylvania that places service dogs and seizure alert dogs with disabled partners. Service dogs devote themselves to helping their uncoordinated people move through the world. Willa can do an amazing number of useful things: pick up anything and everything I drop, carry a prayer book (or groceries), press elevator buttons with her nose, tug open the fridge.
She is also something of a prima donna. When she paws the door-opening buttons at Duke Divinity School and then struts around waving her tail, it’s as if she’s waiting for me to recite Psalm 118: “Open for me the gates of Righteousness; I will enter them.” Her message is clear: wherever I go, it’s with her help.
This includes John Umstead Hospital, where, the authorities assert, no service dog has gone before. It’s a strange place. Nothing here is homelike. Patients usually arrive at the hospital in the back seat of a police car. Schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, major depression, drug abuse, alcoholism, or some combination of these disorders makes them so ill that their worlds shatter. They no longer live in the reality we consider normal. They can’t manage the everyday world. So they find themselves here, emptying their pockets for the admissions nurses.
This is the end of the line, the place of last resort. Many patients come to the hospital for a few days and then return to their lives, but some stay on the wards for years. They are too sick to survive anywhere else, or they have nowhere else left to go. They learn the hospital’s sounds: the screech of the heavy lunch carts, the thud and clang of doors locking, the doctors’ clipped footsteps. They adapt, more or less.
Willa loves these veteran patients. When she meets an old friend, she butts her head into his belly and rubs her face on his jeans, sneezing adoringly. Nearly everyone finds this routine irresistible. “Hey, chaplain, your dog’s flirting with me again. Crazy dog. People don’t like me so much.”