Animals and the Kids Who Love Them
Extraordinary True Stories of Hope, Healing, and Compassion
By Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson
New World Library Copyright © 2011 Allen and Linda Anderson
All rights reserved.
Miniature Horse Patty Pat Answers a Parent's Prayer
Tom Russo, WEST COXSACKIE, NEW YORK, as told to Peggy Frezon, RENSSELAER, NEW YORK
Most kids get the sniffles, a cough, or a sore throat now and then. But my daughter, Tory, gets sick a lot. A common cold can send her to the hospital. Or worse, can lead to serious complications. Tory has common variable immunodeficiency. It's an immune disease similar to that of "the boy in the plastic bubble," who had to live in protective surroundings because his immune system couldn't keep him safe from germs. Fortunately, we don't have to keep Tory in a bubble. Our doctor encourages us to take her outdoors, let her spend time with other kids when she can, and lead as normal a life as possible.
When Tory was five, she had bronchitis ten times in as many months, and each time we rushed her off to the doctor for antibiotics or to the hospital for intravenous infusions of medication. One time as we drove home, my mind was clouded with worry. I glanced in the rearview mirror at my daughter, terribly thin, her fine blonde hair sticking to her pale cheeks, and thought, God, why does my child have this horrible disease? But then I heard soft sounds from the back seat. Tory was singing cheerfully. If she could bear it, I could be strong, too.
Several days later, Tory was feeling much better. "Let's take her to Newkirk's," I suggested to my wife, Lisa. My friend Newkirk owned King Hill Miniatures, a horse farm in Freehold, New York, Tory's favorite place to visit. A day in the country would do her good. She loved the miniature horses and knew most of them by name, including a rebellious young horse, Patty, who was her favorite.
Tory was the first one in the car. She wore her brown cowboy boots that reached nearly to her knees, and her favorite shirt with the pony designs. As we drove alongside the pastures of King Hill Miniatures, I watched the little horses kick up their heels in the warm sunshine. Full of spring friskiness, they galloped and cavorted. Tory clapped her hands and, when the car stopped, opened the door and dashed out to the pasture gate.
Newkirk was there to meet us. "Watch out for Patty. She's a ramrod today," he cautioned us. He'd had his hands full with the young, silver chestnut mare from the day he got her. "I can't do anything with that horse," he'd complain. "She never listens to me, raises Cain on the farm, and runs around like a demon!"
Tory squeezed through the gate. Unfortunately, she had one thing on her mind. "Patty!" she called, clapping loudly.
Lisa caught up with her and grasped Tory's hand. "Let's go see the other horses."
But Tory shook her head firmly. "Patty Pat!" she called.
In the distance, Patty raised her head from the grass. When Tory called again, the horse perked up her ears and turned toward her and Lisa. Then she bolted their way like a streak of lightning. No one had time to stop her. Lisa threw her arms around Tory as the horse bore down on them. I charged toward them, and Newkirk ran to catch the horse. Tory, however, relaxed in Lisa's embrace, her little arm stretched out, reaching for the horse.
When Patty was only a breath away, something amazing happened. Instead of ramming into us or bucking or displaying any of the other wild behavior Newkirk had told us about, Patty stopped dead in her tracks. She whinnied softly, like she was saying "hello." Her deep brown eyes stared directly at Tory. Something in the horse's expression told me she sensed she should be gentle with this child. Tory reached up and touched Patty's silky neck.
Newkirk stared, his eyes wide, his mouth hanging open. "That horse never does that for me," he said. "When I call her, she runs the other way like a rocket!"
Patty lowered her nose and sniffed Tory, who giggled. Lisa loosened her grip on our daughter as Tory reached out and hugged the horse. Patty stood still and let Tory walk all around her, kissing her. Lisa wiped a tear from her eye, and I admit that I got choked up too, seeing how tender this horse became with our daughter. The two wandered around the field together, the miniature horse and the little girl, fast friends, until it was time to go. Then Patty followed Tory to the gate.
"I don't get it," said Newkirk, shaking his head. "She's never done that before. For anyone. You've seen her, wild as the day she was born."
As our car pulled away, Tory twisted around in her seat, trying to see Patty. And what was Patty doing? Pawing at the pasture gate as if she wanted to follow us home.
Tory's New Best Friend
From then on, we brought Tory to the farm to visit Patty as often as we could. Newkirk even let us buy Patty and keep her at his place. Patty was just as wild as ever, except when Tory was around, and then she turned calm and docile. No one could explain it.
Tory's effect on Patty was clear. But just as amazing was Patty's effect on Tory. When Tory started school, she missed so many days due to illness that we eventually had to have her home-tutored. She couldn't play contact sports or join in other active games with kids her age. Going outside our home was awkward; sometimes she had to wear a mask to protect her from germs. Lisa and I worried about her missing out on a social life, which is so important to young girls. Few mothers felt comfortable including Tory on sleepovers; they didn't want the responsibility of dealing with an emergency brought on by her medical issues.
Every time our daughter got sick, a scary thought lurked in the back of my mind. What if this time she didn't respond to the treatments? What if she didn't get better? Tory didn't have a life like other little girls: every two weeks she endured intravenous infusions of immune globulins. The side effects left her sick and exhausted for days. It crushed me to see her like that. When Tory curled up in a ball on the couch, quiet and motionless, I worried — what if she loses the will to go on?
At night, I could hear Lisa sobbing into her pillow. Her whispered prayer was, "God, I know she is your child, and you know what's best. But my daughter is so weak. Sometimes we feel helpless." I would add my own silent prayer. I tried to be strong, even though at times I felt helpless too.
But when Tory saw Patty, everything was different. We'd pull up the drive to the farm, and she'd jump out of the car, head toward the pasture, and call, "Where's my Patty Pat?" Every time, the horse came galloping to her.
When Tory felt well, she and Patty ran together in the field. When she didn't feel well, Tory sat on the ground, and Patty stood over her like a sentry. One time when Tory was too weak to play outside, I pulled up a chair and sat her in front of the stall, and Patty pushed her nose over the door. I left them together for a while so I could talk with Newkirk. When I returned, Tory's schoolbooks lay open on her lap, and she was reading aloud to Patty. "Dad, she's going to be the smartest horse in the world," Tory told me, beaming. I laughed and hugged my daughter tightly.
How They Heal and Comfort Each Other
One day Patty suffered a devastating injury. She cut the tendon sheath on the back of her leg. She allowed no one to change her bandages. "She hates people messing with her legs," Newkirk said.
The horse had been thrashing and kicking with her nostrils flaring and eyes bulging. But when we brought Tory to the stable, Patty's eyes softened. With her gaze glued to Tory, she let us change her bandages, standing stalk still as Tory talked and sang to her.
Tory still struggles with her illness, but whenever she gets down, she thinks about Patty and smiles. Illness after illness, treatment after treatment, somehow she gets through, and the first thing she wants to do is to see Patty. It's even easier now because Patty came to live with us. Tory can watch her best friend right from her bedroom window. There's no way we can know why Patty is calm only for Tory. Or how Tory draws strength and hope from the little horse. I just know that Patty is in our little girl's life for a reason.
"Where's my Patty Pat?" calls Tory. And I know the answer. She's by your side and in your heart, the answer to a parent's prayers. For hope comes in many forms, even in the shape of a rebellious little horse.
What are the ways animals or other people have answered your prayers and given you hope? How could you pass on to others the gift of hope?
Midas Makes Our Dream Come True
Julie Yanz, MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA
My son Zach began his life meeting every developmental milestone along the way. He was a charming, happy little boy who loved to kick a ball around the backyard, scribble at the kitchen table, and nestle in my lap for a good squeeze. He would point at planes flying overhead and use words to describe what he saw in the world.
When Zach was fourteen months old, his demeanor changed drastically. Within a couple of months his emerging language gave way to grunts and screams. Crying, he erupted into fits of rage and self-injury. His fine and gross motor skills were gone. He couldn't kick a ball or hold a crayon in his little hands. He did not want clothes on his body. The slightest touch on his skin could prompt a fight-or-flight response. He was up for hours on end, never sleeping except when I held him against my chest. He no longer smiled, and the sparkle in his eyes was gone. It was as if a candlesnuffer had lowered on him and extinguished his light. The child I had known vanished into the dark cave of regressive autism.
I remember leaning over Zach's bed as he finally fell asleep one night and begging for his once-emerging language to return and explode into sentences. I pleaded for his body to move and respond the way it had.
We frantically began the race of our lives to get our son back. Almost immediately we began intensive, thirty-five-hour-a-week therapy in our home. In addition I shuttled Zach to speech and occupational therapy several times a week. Often his siblings and I would cheer him on through the smoked glass in the observation room as he relearned how to toss a ball. We rejoiced in the small victories he made over autism, such as learning how to blow so he could blow out the candles on his birthday cake. We incorporated music and aquatic therapy, special diets and supplements, and countless doctor appointments — all in an effort to regain our son.
As I look back on those early years, it was clear Zach made gains. He did relearn some of what autism took from him. But our family struggled and found it challenging to function anymore as a unit. Most days we had caregivers or therapists in our home, and Zach became accustomed to one-on-one therapy. I found it difficult to balance his needs with my need to have my family together — alone. Truth was, it was hard to do anything outside of the home unless we had help.
I could not control the variables of daily life to make Zach more successful in his efforts to progress. Everyday noises such as lawnmowers, motorcycles, the drumming of an overhead light fixture, and the vacuum were disturbing to him. His senses were always in a state of high alert, and his behavior was unpredictable. The older he got, the harder it was for him to control his flailing arms and legs. His fists would pummel his head until it was swollen and black and blue. He would bite and break his skin, becoming even more aggressive after he saw the blood he had drawn.
When we went outside our home, I couldn't take my eyes off Zach or he'd be gone — maybe not quickly, but quietly for sure. If he did run away, I couldn't always catch him. A few times, he darted in front of cars.
I had to do something. Our house was safe. Our backyard was safe. But our life was not safe. Our family found solace at home and could relax there, but the isolation hurt us all. My heart ached as I tried to figure out another way we could live as a family, with autism. This was no longer a sprint but a marathon. We continued to hope that Zach would be one of those children who broke through the locks of autism.
In the summer of 2008 I saw an interview on television regarding Can Do Canines' autism assistance dogs. It sparked my hope that one day Zach could have an assistance dog, and I applied for one right away. When I read the organization's mission statement, I knew we had found the right group: "Can Do Canines is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for people with disabilities by creating mutually beneficial partnerships with specially trained dogs. We envision a world where everyone who wants and needs an assistance dog can have one."
This mission and dream resonated with me. I was thrilled to envision my child living life to his own potential with the help of a special dog. Years of focusing on cognitive skills and behavioral strategies had left Zach without social skills. It was time to change that. The next leg of the marathon would be to focus on socialization by engaging my son with his family and with life in the world beyond our home. I believed that an autism assistance dog would be the perfect companion for Zach on this journey. After we submitted an application and participated in interviews and a home visit, Zach was accepted as a candidate for an autism assistance dog.
In January 2010, after a two-year wait, Zach visited with a gorgeous, eighty-pound golden retriever named Midas, and we had our first glimpse of what was to come. While Midas was not yet fully trained, it was as though he instantly knew Zach was the boy he was learning to help. The dog approached my son with a gentle enthusiasm that prompted Zach to reach out and touch the large head nestled in his lap. It was clear that Zach had found a friend in Midas. After several months of training with Can Do Canines, Midas came home to live with Zach on May 5, 2010. Every day since then, we have appreciated the many ways Midas enhances our lives and encourages Zach to live life to the fullest.
Midas does what traditional service dogs do; but to a child with autism, he also gives a myriad of other meaningful gifts countless times every day. He offers a soft landing spot for Zach's toes and lets Zach's fingers twirl his fur on a long car ride. His scratchy tongue licks Zach's face and hands when our son is frustrated, eventually turning tears into a smile. He cozies up and rubs his smooth ears against Zach's cheek as reassurance that he is there for him. All these small gestures offer Zach a friendship that no one else can provide. No words are spoken. No words are needed. Their communication is clear to those who witness it — this is the unconditional love between a boy and his dog.
Zach's world is expanding with Midas by his side. As a constant companion, Midas is Zach's anchor, both physically and emotionally.
When they are in public together, Midas is at times a literal physical anchor. He and Zach are tethered together by a six-foot lead that connects a belt around Zach's waist to a harness worn by Midas. I hold on to a leash connected to Midas. If Zach bolts away suddenly, Midas is trained to firmly stand in one place and hold his ground, not allowing Zach to run away no matter how hard he pulls. This keeps Zach safe and allows me to relax more.
Midas acts as Zach's emotional anchor when his presence calms Zach during anxious times of overstimulation. Midas makes it possible for Zach to participate in things we hadn't previously been able to do as a family.
Most families take for granted the idea of eating dinner out together. Before Midas, Zach wouldn't sit still for a meal. One parent would have to stay with the other kids while the other parent took Zach out of the restaurant before he had a tantrum. This summer, we went on a family vacation with Midas and Zach. The high-light of one weekend was an evening when our family of five sat in a restaurant and enjoyed dinner. Zach's siblings were overjoyed that we were actually all together, and Zach was content. He was able to take off his shoes and rest his feet on his friend's back. Physical connection through the tether kept Zach feeling grounded. If he got up from his chair, he couldn't walk very far. Midas kept him within arm's reach, and Zach would quickly sit back down. I am certain Zach even tossed a few fries under the table to keep Midas happy. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Animals and the Kids Who Love Them by Allen Anderson, Linda Anderson. Copyright © 2011 Allen and Linda Anderson. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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