We did our hospital visits this week including hospice and the hospital. What was different was we got the opportunity to visit with residents of the West Pines Behavioral Health facility located on the hospital campus.
But before sharing our experiences, a little background on West Pines. With a long legacy in treating addiction/substance abuse for adults up to age 60, this facility provides short-term psychiatric care. Short-term care (generally defined as 30 days or less) is provided as well as “an eight-week group therapy program that focuses on improving daily coping skills, establishing safety, and enhancing individual self-respect.” This program is designed for those “who may experience behavioral or emotional difficulties, but do not require (or no longer require) the intense level of psychiatric care provided in an inpatient or partial hospitalization program with treatments for depression, bi-polar disorder and anxiety disorders. Given this background and not knowing exactly what to expect, I was somewhat anxious but simultaneously looking forward to this cool opportunity.
The director of out-patient services greeted us and showed us around the facility. Phil Stone has been with the facility for 12 years. The staff were equally welcoming and professional. Upon introduction, he immediately hugged me when I offered my handshake. I liked the warm welcome. Sam’s tail didn’t stop wagging during the intros and as Phi was providing background info, Sam leaned against him indicating he was more than content. It may have been the first lean of the day but it certainly wasn’t the last. The only challenge for Sam was deciding whether to leave Phil’s most welcomed ear scratches and start greeting others in the reception area. I think the numbers ‘persuaded’ Sam to make the rounds of everyone in the room (guess his mama didn’t raise an ordinary shameless, attention-seeking fool). All the aw’s and ooh’s from everyone just egged Sam and his wagging tail on and he then spent time with each and every person we encountered.
Going from building to building (West Pines is a 76-bed facility), there were a couple of encounters that were most touching. First, was a young man who clearly had been crying in the common area. He was wrapped up in a blanket and trying to gain control over his emotions. Sam eagle-eye spotted him immediately, walked right over and began wagging his tail until the young man started petting Sam. He glanced away from my smile but his face lit up slightly as Sam got as close as he could. This encounter was incredibly touching for me. Sam knew this young man needed him and Sam made sure to let him know he was safe and wanted in return. Clearly the power of animals with those struggling with mental health issues was on full view and practice.
Our second memorable scene involved a young woman who was so taken with Sam she asked me if I knew where she could do something like what we were doing as she hugged and petted him. I asked if she had a dog and she smiled and then blithely responded, “oh shoot, I can barely take care of myself, let alone a dog.” It was a sad comment for me initially, then I thought how unencumbered she was to blurt it out and took comfort in her completely unfiltered observation, much like a small child. This woman knew her limitations yet she didn’t retreat from the fact.
And finally there was another young man, who was very shy and who stuttered. His dark features masked his face and yet when I asked him if he wanted to pet Sam, he embarrassingly smiled and ran his fingers through Sam’s fur. His voice was barely audible but he clearly was mesmerized by Sam. After a couple of minutes, he picked up his cell phone and I thought perhaps he was utilizing some deflecting kind of behavior to avoid contact with a stranger (me). Instead, he pulled up a photo of his own dog, a Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix. Cute little fluff ball, too. I commented on what a terrific photo it was and asked if it was taken by a professional photographer it was so well composed and the dog perfectly posed. He smiled, and said no, it was one he had taken and he had used software to provide the nautical-themed background. “Incredible,” I noted. “You must be very good with software and computers.” Again he smiled and whispered he was. About this time, his group was ready to resume their discussion and we left but not before he followed us to the door. I think (at least I hope) we made a difference in his day.
Our visit was so touching to my heart and so profound that I vowed to request the assignment again. It was a remarkable day even if a somewhat shortened time that we were able to spend with people (our visits are chaperoned by the director while on campus and I wondered if Phil got any work done on Wednesday’s ‘dog-visit-day’). I left with a couple of observations of our visit. First, there seem to be more men at this facility than women and it made me wonder if substance abuse is more prevalent in younger men. From my experience visiting the senior behavioral floor at the hospital (see previous posts here, here and here in case you missed them), more women than men seem to have mental health issues as they get older, perhaps because they generally live longer than men. But certainly having a warm, engaging environment with committed staff makes all the difference in the world. I can’t imagine a staff more focused and dedicated to their patients with a successful history of treatment.
We saw so many people in the past couple of days and my little boy was completely wiped out. But I’m sure he’ll definitely be ready to visit again soon with a ready tail wag and a lean against a willing leg.
Live, love, bark! ❤