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You Made My Day


Frank Caceres with his service dog Koba. (Photo courtesy Frank Caceres).
Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News November 2015

Volunteering at the local veterans hospital can be rewarding

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I love volunteering at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

It’s an honor to bring a few smiles to my fellow veterans, if only for a moment. Some of the vets there have served in multiple wars, including one who is a World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veteran. I know how much simple things like this mean since I’m a veteran and a patient there, too.

Living with ms (I refuse to capitalize the acronym for multiple sclerosis because it would imply a respect for it I don’t have) qualifies me for care at the hospital’s spinal-cord injury/disease (SCI/D) center.
I was diagnosed with ms in 1996 and have gone from a slight limp in my gait to riding in a motorized wheelchair. In 2010, I was introduced to my new best friend, Kobe (sorry George).
Since then, the 80-pound yellow Labrador retriever goes everywhere with me, including helping me bring joy to patients and staff at this Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facility.

A Welcome Sight

Haley is large and my appointments are often at opposite ends of the facility. As we traverse the halls, Kobe is the focus of attention. Kobe elicits many smiles and comments, such as, “He’s beautiful,” and “He’s a perfect example of a yellow Lab.” These folks obviously have a keen eye and good taste. Who am I to argue? I’ve been a volunteer for more than a year and have gone to the hospital’s nursing home almost every week since. In that time, I’ve become a welcome sight to many patients and staff. OK, Kobe is the welcome sight.

From the moment I exit my van until I reach the nursing home, I encounter countless people whose eyes light up when they see Kobe. We see some faces that wear the stresses of life’s daily hurdles, but upon seeing Kobe, frowns reverse and teeth appear. Worries are cast aside, even if only for a few moments. Research shows stroking an animal’s fur has positive health effects, including lowering high blood pressure, eliminating stress and improved cardiovascular health.  In the SCI/D lobby, I come upon William, an employee who’s always first to greet people with a smile and a cheerful, “Good morning.” Kobe has become William’s favorite pooch, with William telling him, “You make my heart happy,” and, “Go and work your magic.” Speaking with William has become my pep talk before making the trek to the nursing home.

At A Loss For Words

Once there, I go into the Flamingo Way Café where I see some of my regulars. One veteran, a stroke victim, can’t walk or speak. That’s until I hand him a treat and tell Kobe, “Up!”, to get the snack from the man’s hand. Despite the man’s inability to talk, he laughs when he sees Kobe approaching and genuinely enjoys having the big fellow on his lap. He even managed to sing America the Beautiful to Kobe.
Another gentleman who doesn’t speak managed to say, “Thank you,” after one of our visits.

One patient tells Kobe, “I love you so much,” when he strokes his soft fur. A doctor asked if he liked Kobe. My friend answered by saying, “No. I love him.”
I can’t be sure what the most gratifying part of being a volunteer is — seeing the nursing home residents’ reactions when they see Kobe or the numerous patients and employees who stop to pet him. Their frowns and facial wrinkles betray the stresses of a hard day.

Some have even sat on the floor to scratch his belly, the “service dog extraordinaire” rolling around on his back as he enjoys every stroke. After a few minutes of spoiling him, several people have said, “Thanks, you’ve made my day.”

An author rarely finds himself at a loss for words, but it’s difficult to describe the feeling I get when I hear that. It more than makes up for the three hours it takes me to get ready for the 21-mile drive from my house to Haley.

A Winning Situation

I’ve been blessed with many things for which I’m grateful. Although I’m only one of approximately 1,800 volunteers at Haley, it’s given me a new purpose in life. Having Kobe at my side makes it a win-win situation for patients, employees and me. A fellow volunteer once told me, “You bring joy to the hearts of many people here.”
Kobe wears a “VA Volunteer” patch on his cape and people have asked how they can get a service dog. So, I compiled a list of the larger organizations that train and donate service dogs. I put that information on cards and give them to anyone who inquires.

As if volunteering wasn’t rewarding enough, the VA will pay for veterinarian visits, prescription medicines and annual teeth cleaning for qualified service dogs. I learned there’s a veterinarian here. I guess she’s a “vet vet.”
The VA has been good to me and I’m happy I’ve been able to give back, one smile at a time. When people who stop to talk and pet Kobe say, “Thanks, you’ve made my day,” I answer with, “Thank you for making my day.”

Frank Cáceres, PhD, is a U.S. Army veteran and author. For more information, visit frankcaceres.com.

 

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