Six years ago, I was working as a brand new Certified Child Life Specialist in a bustling children’s hospital when I was asked a question about dogs that changed my life forever.
Let me backtrack. I was approaching college graduation in 2010, right in the middle of a recession. To make matters worse, I was graduating with a theatre degree in a recession. By some miracle, I lined up a job and decided to keep my head down and stay out of trouble until I reached graduation day. To that end, I became a volunteer at the local children’s hospital. My assignment was to bring very sick kids out of their dark hospital rooms and into the playroom for all kinds of activities and socialization. Some nights we’d make mini pizzas and play bingo, and other afternoons we’d do sensory play by adding toys to bins of sand and rice and water. Whatever the shift brought, it felt natural and easy to focus on giving the patients even just a small moment to be regular kids.
One day, mere weeks from graduation, I was leaving my volunteer shift when my supervisor mentioned she was glad I was going to be a child life specialist. I told her I was graduating with a job in theatre and I didn’t even know what a child life specialist was. She looked slightly disappointed and then told me that was what she was. Oops. She said her job was centered around understanding the healthy development of children, and then taking that knowledge to task in the hospital; knowing what things might stress or confuse or traumatize a child and helping them work through those things, knowing how to scaffold kids through their growth, knowing when to put her foot down and go toe-to-toe with other healthcare providers to advocate for what is best for her patients, like sitting on a loved one’s lap during a painful procedure instead of being held down. She said the hardest parts were giving kids bad news, like their family member didn’t survive the accident they were in, or their treatment wasn’t working, or even in some cases they wouldn’t be allowed to go back home with mom. She said her favorite parts of her job were watching kids conquer a part of their treatment they never thought they could, and helping kids celebrate their birthdays, milestones, and achievements. I felt a faint calling to this work once it had a name, but the bottom line was I had a job in theatre and I was going to do that job!
I only lasted six months before I packed my bags and went right back to school to become a Certified Child Life Specialist.
I was still in my first year of working in child life when my boss told me she had been to a conference presentation where a child life specialist in another hospital was using a specially-trained dog to help kids cope with abuse examinations. She asked me if I would look into that program and see if it might be possible at our hospital. And my life was never the same.
On January 13, 2014, I met Ralph Lauren the dog, aka Ralphie, for the first time and... it wasn’t fireworks right away, if I’m being honest. There I was, a brand new child life specialist ready to get her magical dog to work with the sick children, and all he would do was give me the side-eye. The side-eye! At one point I said, “I’m your new mom!” and he AUDIBLY SIGHED! It only took me about an hour to fall in love with his sass, and I honestly fall more in love with it every day.
Ralphie is a golden retriever who was bred, born and raised at Canine Assistants in Georgia. He was made to work, either as a service dog or, as he has spent the last 5+ years, a facility dog. He and I have been side-by-side nearly every moment since we met in 2014. It is the honor of a lifetime to be connected to Ralph’s leash... so much so, that I often have trouble remembering my life before him.
In the last 5 years, hospitals all over the country (and some internationally) have taken notice of this work, and brought dogs on board as full-time clinical employees to help kids in a way that humans simply cannot.
The combination of child life work and dogs is a no-brainer. Picture this: a terrified four-year-old is in the hospital feeling very sick, enduring poke after procedure after scan after more pokes. They are cuddled into the tiniest ball in the refuge of their bed when there is a knock at the door. Some four-year-olds might immediately cry, some scream, some hide, and some freeze. Now imagine the door cracks open, and instead of a nurse with yucky medicine they have no choice but to take, or a team of doctors who want to press on their tender belly, it’s RALPH!
The instant bond and trust between the patient and Ralphie allows me to assess the child quickly and with depth. The rapport is created the second the child sees sweet Ralph, eager to love them and accept them exactly as they are.
It’s difficult to capture the indelible mark Ralph has left - and continues to leave - on this world. He and I have worked with literally thousands of sick, scared, injured, abused, neglected, and traumatized kids over the years.
He has performed ridiculous tricks to make kids’ tears disappear after a dreaded blood draw, and he has offered his paw in silence to teenagers recovering from suicide attempts. He has pretended to be a patient in the hospital; gone through countless mock procedures to give kids the confidence to know that if he can do it, they can do it.
He has done squats with physical therapists in hopes that a little laughter might distract kids from their pain.
He has trotted through parking garages to convince kids to walk into the hospital when they are refusing, because they know how chemo will make them feel.
He knows exactly when to toss himself on his back for a laugh, and he knows how to be a gentle giant as he climbs into bed with kids who are nearing their last breath on Earth.
Ralph has been honored in football stadiums and funeral programs; his impact is felt no matter how long or deep the interaction. And every night after work, we go home, rest up, and do it all again the next day.
Though I am a self-proclaimed crazy dog lady (I have embarrassed many loved ones by pulling my car over to talk to dogs I see out for a walk), I can’t say I ever knew a dog could have such a profound impact until I met Ralph. He is the best friend I have ever had and can ever imagine. He has loved me and cheered me on through enormous challenges, life changes, heartbreak, unrelenting imposter syndrome, you name it. He has kept me accountable and kept me going at every turn.
Most importantly, he has kept me laughing, side-eye and all. The work we do is fun, but it’s also very hard work. I call it heart work. Most days the victories outnumber the losses. But on the days that the reverse is true, I am able to breathe through it knowing that every child that has met Ralphie is better for it.
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