Willow and Sam

When I walked into the George Washington University Hospital (GW Hospital) on a late February evening in 2016 with my therapy dog, Willow (a retired racing greyhound), happily trotting along at my side, I had no idea that together we were about to begin the most amazing journey into the power of the human-animal bond I could have ever imagined.

You see, I was not yet aware that Willow and I were about to meet a young man, not even 25, fighting for his life in the ICU that night. Sam almost died when he was involved in an accident on his way home from work one day. He required numerous surgeries, among them two below knee amputations.

The ICU room was dark and cool when we entered. I could see Sam’s father sitting in a chair in a dark corner of the room, gazing down to the busy DC street below. He nodded hello, but did not speak. Sam’s mother was quickly pacing to and fro, trying to keep Sam comfortable and speaking encouraging words. They had just arrived into town from New York, completely blindsided by the news of their only son’s accident. Each was in their own version of shock. Sam himself was very sedated and unaware at the time that he had lost his legs in an accident. A pillow fluff here, another blanket there, a few more positive words, but Sam just was not responding to the people in his room. Then something amazing happened; he saw Willow. I saw his hand slip from his lap to down below his bed rail and his fingers start to make a scratching motion. Willow ran right up to his bedside, expertly sliding her head right beneath his awaiting fingers.

I walked out of the ICU room completely overwhelmed with grief and a feeling of complete inadequacy in my ability to bring any kind of healing to this family. Just as the elephant that was my self-doubt was crushing my chest and choking the last bit of air from my lungs and the tears started to float to the surface of my eyes- I felt a strong grip on my forearm. I turned around to see Sam’s mom. “Will you come back tomorrow?” she asked. I wanted to turn and run and let that elephant of my fears of inadequacy win, but I looked down at Willow, who had none of those feelings and whose eyes showed nothing but steadfast love and compassion, and before I knew it, the words “Yes, we will come” had left my lips. I cried my whole drive home that night.

It was not always easy. At first, Sam would only interact with our dogs, not us. Next, he would speak to us, but only to tell us the exact opposite of what we said was true. If I said the sky was blue, he said it was gray. If I told him he had a special way with dogs, he told me I was hiding treats in his bed and he just hadn’t found them yet. This passed over a few months and the power of Sam’s hard work, motivation and positivity began to shine through.Over the next six months, Sam faced a relentless physical and mental battle of rehabilitation. Normally, People Animals Love (PAL) visits occurred on Wednesday evenings at GW Hospital, but Sam required a special and immediate care plan. For the next three weeks, Kay and Molly Malone, another PAL therapy dog, took the day shift with Sam and then Willow and I took the night shift. Molly was in Sam’s bed when he awoke from surgeries and when the doctors held family consults. Willow and I would spend the evenings with Sam until he fell asleep holding her paw.

I am proud of my entire group of dedicated PAL therapy dogs and their humans visiting an average of 500 GW Hospital patients, family and staff each month. The work I do alongside Willow through PAL is nothing less than soul-filling- and it’s not just me. The thing I hear as a PAL site leader the most at the end of hospital rounds from my human volunteers is “thank you, I really needed that.”The last night Willow and I spent with Sam at GW Hospital was a joyous occasion filled with love and laughter and well-wishes for his continued rehabilitation program in New York. Sam told me as I turned to leave the room- “Megan, the next time you see me, I’ll be walking”. I once again cried all the way home- this time tears of pure joy. In fact, it was the first time in my life I had ever felt such depth and purity of joy- and it was incredible.

As for Sam’s promise to me? You bet he was walking the next time I saw him! On November 5, 2016, less than a year after his accident, he set a new best personal record of 59 minutes on a 5k with a new set of prosthetic legs. Sam is also advancing to become a motivational speaker. Here’s to Sam. Here’s to Willow and Molly Malone. Here’s to you, PAL community, for making this all possible.By donating to PAL, you’re not just making a difference in the lives our therapy dogs serve, such as the Rossiello family, but in the lives and souls of the volunteer fleet as well. You are enabling us to share our passion, our compassion, our desire to bring healing and joy to this world, in small steps, in many places, every day through the power of the human-animal bond. For that, we all thank you.

  • Megan and Willow Helsel, GW Hospital Site Co-Leads

Megan and Willow have been PAL volunteers since 2013, initially visiting the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute (NVMHI) and the Arlington Library Paws to Read Program before finding their home at GW Hospital where she gratefully became a site leader for PAL. She is proud to support an animal assisted therapy program for the GW Hospital physical rehabilitation department jointly between PAL and Hero Dogs as well as visiting over 500 patients, family and staff each month onsite. Megan is a certified End of Life Doula and avid Greyhound rescue organization supporter.