There was one thing dog trainer Jeanne Gurnis wished she could have done for her mother before she died. "Mother was in the intensive care unit, and she kept asking to see Corky, her dog," Jeanne recalled. "But the hospital wouldn't hear of it. All I could bring her were photos. She had me prop the pictures on her nightstand, so Corky would be the first one to greet her when she woke up, just like at home." Still, Jeanne couldn't help wondering how much more her mother's last days could have been brightened if she'd been able to hug her beloved Corky.
So when a local hospital, Westchester Medical Center, just north of New York City, approached her about starting a pet-therapy program-where specially trained animals would visit patients-Jeanne knew she had to give it a try. "This is only a test," the staff warned her. "We'll have to see if pet therapy really does the patients any good."
The spring of 1999, Jeanne and Trilby, a bright-eyed little corgi who'd been certified through Therapy Dogs International, became the first volunteer pet-therapy team at the hospital. The staff's initial concerns about infection diminished when they learned Trilby had regular checkups, and was bathed and groomed before each visit. And resistance melted away entirely as patients' morale and recovery rate improved measurably after Trilby stopped in to see them.
That December a doctor called Trilby to the intensive care unit to see a patient who seemed beyond medical help. Brain-injured in a car accident, Babs Barter had been in a coma for three weeks. Her husband said she loved dogs, so her doctor decided to try Trilby.
Jeanne knew it was a long shot; patients needed to interact with an animal to benefit. As she and Trilby headed into the ICU, Jeanne prayed, as she often did before a tough assignment, Father, please guide this visit. Thy will be done.
Jeanne lifted Trilby onto the bed. "I heard you're a dog lover," Jeanne said. No response. She put Babs's limp hand on the dog's back. "Trilby is a Pembroke Welsh corgi. Want to pet her?"
Still no response. Jeanne kept talking. Twenty minutes passed with no hint of awareness from Babs. "You know, if you don't hold Trilby she might fall off the bed." No reaction. Lord, what should I do now? Jeanne wondered.
That's when Trilby took charge. Ever so slowly the little corgi inched closer to Babs's still body. It was a stretch to suppose that a dog-even one as smart as Trilby-understood what Jeanne was getting at. But then Babs's husband exclaimed, "Look . . . look!"
Jeanne saw it too. Almost imperceptibly, the fingers of the comatose woman moved. "Trilby likes that," Jeanne said to Babs. "Why don't you keep petting her?"
Babs's doctor was so delighted he asked Jeanne and Trilby to come by every day. They did, though Babs's response remained too slight to be sure of.
One morning three weeks after their first visit, Jeanne clearly saw Babs move her fingers. It was unmistakable-she was stroking the dog's soft, thick fur! Two weeks later, Jeanne and Trilby watched Babs's eyes flicker open. When Babs was strong enough to transfer to a rehabilitation center, she got permission for Trilby to visit. Soon Babs was doing so well she was able to go home.
Just before Christmas 2000, a box arrived at Jeanne's house, addressed in a firm, clear hand. "To Trilby Gurnis."
Inside was a huge batch of fresh dog biscuits, and a note from Babs Barter. "Baked by me for Trilby, who saved my life. Thanks for the first-class care."