Saturday, January 13, 2007

Creature Comforts

An ED nurse recently told me a story about a homeless woman, living in her car, who wanted to be able to keep her cat with her in the emergency department. The nurse said no, because so many people are allergic to cats. (She might have been willing to try to bend the rules a little had the woman brought in a dog.) I don't know what happened to the cat, but -- based on my experience with ED patients -- I suspect the woman may have been more worried about her pet than about herself during her hospital visit.

Pets are family, and they figure very largely in my conversations with patients. When I ask people worn down by chronic illness and worry to tell me about their sources of strength and comfort (the quintessential chaplain question), dogs and cats and other beloved creatures are often on the list. This is especially true, as you might expect, of the solitary and elderly, for whom worry over pet care is a major source of stress during hospitalization. Quite often, someone about to be admitted will ask for help contacting a neighbor or friend to feed the cats or walk the dog. On one occasion, we had a patient who was so frantic about her dog that we called Animal Control to see if they could send an officer to check on the animal's safety; luckily, the patient got to go home rather than having to be admitted, so the call turned out to be unnecessary.

When I see people wearing animal-themed clothing or jewelry, I always compliment them and ask if they have pets. This usually leads into lively conversations bout the patients' dogs, cats, birds, fish, or horses, and often gives me a chance to share my own pet stories. Talking about animals comforts pet owners at least as much as prayer does; I think for most people, it is a form of prayer, since companion animals incarnate the unconditional love we usually associate with God. (I often tell patients that dogs and cats are little pieces of God wrapped in fur coats.) The pure affection shown by animals is why pet therapy is so effective, but it turns out that pets are good therapy even when they aren't physically present.

Wild animals can function the same way. I wrote one of my ED sonnets about a homeless man who delighted in feeding the birds every day. Another patient, so suicidally depressed that he was brought to the hospital curled in a fetal position, uncurled and became animated as he talked about watching the feeding behavior of wild birds at a lake he'd once visited. He demonstrated their diving patterns for me by using his hands and imitating the noises they made.

He hadn't responded when I asked about family, friends, music, or hobbies -- topics that will often get suicidal patients talking -- but when, as a last resort, I asked if there were any places that made him happy, he started talking about the lake and the birds. His desire to see those birds again became a reason for him to stay alive.

I recently had a haunting visit with a married couple: one spouse was in organ failure and might not be leaving the hospital, and the other was clearly trying to contain grief and exhaustion after years of chronic illness. They wanted me to pray with them, and when I asked if they had special prayer requests, other than the obvious medical ones, they looked at each other, and then the wife asked shyly, "Do you think pets are important?"

"Of course pets are important!"

Six months before, they'd found a baby finch under a tree, and brought it home and raised it as a pet. They told me how affectionate it was, how it would perch on their shoulders, how it loved taking teacup baths. They were heartbroken when it flew away, and they were worried about whether it could survive on its own.

"Lots of people around here have finch feeders," I told them. "My husband and I have one."

That made them happy. They told me what the bird looked like, and I told them I'd look for it at our feeder. We prayed about the illness, the family, the hospitalization, the bird. Since then, I've seen lots of finches matching their description at our feeder. However slim the chances that one of these birds is actually theirs, it comforts me to think that it might be.

In graduate school, I studied Old English for two semesters. One of the poems we read included a poignant metaphor for mortality: the bird who flies into one end of the lighted feast hall, out of the cold dark winter night, but then flies back out the other. Whenever I see the finches now, I think about that patient -- confined to a bed and keenly aware of mortality -- and I think about the beloved bird who carried the patient's love out into the world, to fly freely.

The patient was unhappy that the bird had flown off, rightly concerned about a tame animal's survival. I know I'm over-romanticizing by imagining the bird as the patient's soul, released into greater life; but I still smile, even more than I used to, whenever I see the finches outside our window.


  1. That's beautiful---and I'm sure one of the finches was theirs.

  2. I'm glad those finches have people like you watching out for them.

  3. That makes me wonder about the wild bird my family raised as a child. It was a sparrow who had fallen from its nest. We fed it and when it was big enough took it outside for flying lessons. It flew just fine and then joined some birds that were on the lines above the yard. It never came back although my sister and I thought we saw it once a week or so later among the same group of birds. I guess the call to the wild is really strong in animals and I do hope Little Bit survived.

    Peace! and Warm weather!

  4. I would have snuck that cat into the ER so fast it wouldn't have even been funny! We have so many germs floating around but we can't have cat hair? Puhlease!

    I might have looked nine months pregnant as I snuck it in under my scrub top, but it would have been under her blanket lickety-split! : D

  5. Animals have been the only "constant" in my world my entire life.

    My pets are a great comfort to me all the time, but especially when the depression comes to life with a vegenance and I can hardly stand to leave my house.

  6. I'm with Kim--I would have snuck that cat in too!

    I love your thought that the finch was the patient's soul released... it feels very right.

    And I love your writing. Simply beautiful.


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