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Harshada Rajani Headshot

Can Dogs Help Some Patients More Than Docs?

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"Buy a pup and your money will buy / Love unflinching that cannot lie..." - Sir Rudyard Kipling, "The Power of the Dog"

While doctors are the obvious magicians behind maximizing our quantity of life, dog lovers would agree that dogs are the quintessential kings of enriching our quality of life. I've learned, after many tears and failures, one needs a stable and fulfilling quality of life, before one can even attempt to tackle issues with one's quantity of life, or in my case, my physical life. In this way, I think my precious dog, Duke, has actually been the not-so-obvious magician behind my recovery.

I think I've made my doughy-eyed admiration and respect for doctors clear in my previous posts, but at times, my illness has rendered my unbeatable heroes quite, beatable. I'm the most fascinating yet most frustrating kind of patient -- nothing about me can be easily cured overnight with a few pills, or a simple surgery. Nothing about my treatment or recovery can be proudly predicted by an impressive medical journal. Everything about me is an incomplete culmination of trials and errors. The medical world hasn't been able to "fix" me (yet), but all the while, my dog has made it his sole mission in life to spend every second of his everyday, fixing me. Now that's one dedicated little doctor. The prescription I've been given in the past consists of about a billion different types of therapies, exercises and drugs. But the prescription Duke relies on is much simpler: about 12 pounds of white, fluffy love, insane amounts of loyalty, and a trillion sloppy kisses.

The craziest and probably most touching part about all of this is that he has no earthly idea that I even need any "fixing". When you have the suffocating pressure of expectations from the entire world, especially from yourself -- to be better, to do better, to live better -- it's a breathtaking feeling to look into someone's eyes, and know that to them, you are perfect, just the way you are, even if that someone is just a dog, who's favorite toy is a sock, and clearly does not have the highest standards. "They receive us in any condition," says Dr. Michael Finkelstein, acclaimed physician, author, and creator of the healthy living concept, "Skillful Living", "and are genuinely interested in being with us."

2013-08-01-harshduke.jpg When I had my stroke, I lost my whole world -- my dreams, my future, my everything -- and I could have, and probably should have, fallen into the deep, dark, inescapable depths of depression, but I didn't, and I know that's because of him. He has the uncanny ability to magically turn my new imperfections into perfections; unknowingly making me value my embarrassments, if only for a few moments. I hate that my dysfunctional hands make me a sloppy eater. But he thinks I drop the little morsels of heaven on the floor every time I eat purposely for him. I absolutely loathe my wheelchair. But he thinks that I'm some kind of superhero with the sweetest ride ever created, that he demands to ride with me in every time it moves. I'm so embarrassed by my awkwardly weird voice. But he thinks I always speak so softly, because I never have a reason to yell at him. He blatantly and unabashedly loves me much more than anybody and anything in this world, and that love is unbelievably moving.

Duke's prescription for me works not only because he fills the gaping holes left in my life from my stroke with endless love and loyalty, but also because having him is kind of... empowering. He's my biggest fan, my most enthusiastic cheerleader, my best confidant, and my most faithful friend. Whenever I'm doing even the most basic of exercises, he ensures he has a front row seat, and watches my every move with such fascination, as if he's mesmerized by the slow and haphazard dance of my usually silent limbs. Whenever I finish practicing standing or walking, he's so anxious to get in my lap and smother me with kisses to congratulate me as if he knows I just did something important. This kid is unreal. Sometimes all the painstaking work seems worth it, just by seeing that unblinking stare of amazement. Dr. Finkelstein asserts, "Our interaction and relationship with them has the ability to uplift our spirits, and provide us with the motivation and courage to overcome various physical, mental and emotional challenges." He has me believing in myself mentally and focused on myself physically, and emotionally -- let's just say I couldn't ask for a better anti-depressant. Whenever he hears any sign of an upcoming eruption of tears, he immediately stops whatever he's doing, sprints to my side, and proceeds to lick my face incessantly until he hears the awkwardly comforting sound of my giggle.

Though I feel like my dog is the one saving my life, I know doctors are the real reason why I'm still here, why my heart continued beating, and my lungs continued breathing while my body was self-destructing. But doctors around the world are slowly realizing and respecting the incredible healing power of pets. Dr. Finkelstein agrees, stating, "Dogs can't remove our appendix. But, their love, devotion, endless kindness can provide great relief when we need it." I've come across doctors who regularly prescribe pet therapy to their patients, and doctors who bring their own dogs with them to patients' appointments. I just spoke to another stroke survivor who attributes all of her strength to her beloved cats. There is definitely some truth to the magic of pets.

But there is one more thing about Duke that I haven't mentioned yet. So all of the muscles in my entire body have reawakened and move, if only a little, except, some muscles of my left hand. Every single chance he gets, for dozens of minutes at a time, Duke, with so much passion and purpose in his eyes, licks my left hand. Not my right hand, not my left arm, but my left hand, as if he knows there is something different about it. I don't think he can lick it to life, but I'm pretty sure that he is convinced he can. So doctors, watch out, Duke might be joining you in the business of making miracles, but he's accomplishing it all without an MD.