It’s three o’clock on a damp Wednesday afternoon when I unlock the last wooden door into Ward 531—twelve cinder-block bedrooms and a common room tucked away in the back of John Umstead Hospital, in Butner, N.C. Precisely two and a half seconds later, a gleefully shrieking blur—blond hair, translucent skin, eyes bright as birthday candles—swarms onto my lap and clamps his sticky fingers around my neck. “Hi,” he says. “I’m new. I’m 5.”
“Really?” I ask. “I would never have guessed.”
We consider each other for a moment. Then his eyes slide down to the left of my wheelchair, and he squeals. “Doggie!” He looks at me again, suddenly unsure. He’s only been in the hospital a few days, but his memories of life outside are already fragmenting. His world is no longer steady. “It’s a doggie?”
“Yes,” I tell my newest patient firmly. “It’s a nice doggie.”
Nice Doggie, who prefers to be addressed as Willa the Astonishingly Wonderful Service Dog, hears her cue. She steps languidly to the front of my wheelchair and nudges her slim head under his arm. He scrambles off my lap and curls up on the linoleum, burrowing his face into her belly. She licks his exposed ear, then glances up at me: I’ve got this one. You take care of the rest.
So I take a breath, make sure my chaplain badge and keys are secure, and turn my attention to the other children who live on Ward 531. Like the adult patients at John Umstead, these kids have been diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders. They come here because they are considered “dangerous to themselves or others.” They are mentally ill. Many of them have been abused. They are also all under the age of 11. As their chaplain, I have three jobs: Listen to their stories. Stay steady, calm and friendly. And, of course, let them play with my dog.
Willa and I are part of a group of five intern chaplains participating in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at John Umstead. I am a postulant for holy orders in the Episcopal Church, which is a fancy way of saying that I hope to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. I also have spastic cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular disorder that means that my muscles don’t speak the same dialect as my brain. I am doing my required CPE at the state mental hospital because working and praying with people who have physical and mental disabilities has always been part of my calling.
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.”
One man comes up to us every morning. He always wears the same clothes—baggy blue sweatshirt, knitted cap, lone cigarette behind his right ear—and his greeting never varies. He bends over, touches Willa’s nose with one stiff finger, chuckles, grips my shoulder hard, and shuffles away again. He never says a word. That one finger offered with courtly precision is his whole conversation, his way of telling us that he’s still here. Willa receives his homage graciously. I wait. Someday, I hope, he’ll speak.
Willa’s most important role at the hospital is also the one she likes best: official conversation starter and soaker-up-of-affection. Before we begin our weekly spirituality group for acutely ill adults, she prances from patient to patient. She nudges hands, snuffles pockets, whacks knees with her tail. Occasionally, she decides that more drastic measures are required. Then she shoves her entire head into someone’s lap and sighs theatrically until her patient cracks a smile.
This is Willa’s version of pastoral care. I follow her around the circle and gather up the crumbs of stories she shakes loose. People talk haltingly, wistfully.
”I had a dog like that, when I was a kid. Lost him when I got sick.“
”My dog’s waiting for me, at home. I trained him special.“
”When I go home, I’m gonna get a dog like her.“”When I go home, I’ll raise a puppy.“ When I go home … when I go home …“
Willa reminds people of home. That’s the simplest way to explain what she does at John Umstead. My job, as a chaplain, is to stay with my patients wherever they are; I try to keep them company within their shattered realities. Willa’s job, as a chaplain’s dog, is simply to be real. She is a living, nudging, shedding, thoroughly insistent reminder that life outside the hospital exists. Beyond John Umstead’s maze of locked doors, beyond the maze of mental illness, there’s a wide, clear world. With dogs in it. Trees. Squirrels. People. Homes. Even cats, if you like them (Willa doesn’t).
Because if the world—neatly personified as a Labrador rubbing her face on your jeans—is still there, perhaps there’s room to keep hoping. In the end, that’s what chaplains come here to say. I can’t fix anything. I can’t make my patients well (though I want to). But I can stay with them, and hope with them. And, by God’s mischievous grace, I can bring my dog along.
Claire Wimbush is a senior divinity student; Willa is her second service dog. The first was a golden retriever named The Patience of Job by the rescue organization that found him and nursed him back to health following treatment for injuries that required amputation of his tail. Affectionately known as Jobie, he retired from service at the age of 9, just as Claire left home to attend the College of William & Mary.