Much of Gabe Gonzalez’s day at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital Polytrauma Clinic is spent working with therapists helping him regain some of the skills and abilities he lost after suffering a major traumatic brain injury in Iraq. But there’s one therapist in particular that puts a smile on his face every time he visits.
It just so happens that this therapist is a four-legged one.
Hercules, a 19-month old black Labrador retriever, is the facility’s new therapy dog. He and his handler, Veterans experience officer Robert Lynch, have been visiting patients in both the outpatient and inpatient clinics for nearly a month now, but Gonzalez’s room has become a daily stop on their rounds of the hospital.
Lynch said he was looking for opportunities to engage with polytrauma patients to acclimate Hercules and see how he reacted to the patients when he walked by and saw Gabe’s mother, Miriam Gonzalez, standing in the room.
“She smiled and was just glowing when she saw Hercules. She invited us in and we started building a relationship,” Lynch said. “Right off the bat when we came into the room, I saw Gabe’s expression on his face and he just started smiling and he was giggling a little bit. I could see his eyes light up and his mom’s eyes light up as well.”
Gonzalez, an Air Force pilot before his injury, uses a wheelchair and only recently started saying a few words. He has been a resident of the polytrauma unit since September 2017 after being transferred from Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland. His mother said he has a chocolate Labrador retriever at home, and that’s probably why he enjoys visits from Hercules.
“He was really amazed and smiling, and then he said, ‘Good boy,’ because he remembered his dog,” Miriam said of Gabe’s first encounter with Hercules. “He really wants his dog but it can’t be. That’s why every day he’s looking forward to Hercules to come, and he makes us laugh.”
Hercules was trained by Southeastern Guide Dogs, an organization that provides guide, therapy and emotional support dogs to those who need them at no cost. His training took almost a year, Lynch said, but it was his demeanor that eventually determined that he would be a therapy dog.
“He is lovable, he is well behaved, he hasn’t barked yet since I’ve had him and it’s been four weeks,” Lynch said. “He’s not distracted by other dogs or children, and he gets along with everyone.”
Hercules lives with Lynch and his wife, Brenda, as his personal emotional support dog, but has been accepted through the hospital Therapy Dog Program as Haley’s official full-time therapy dog as well. Lynch and Hercules started by visiting outpatient clinics and interacting with Veterans waiting for appointments before heading to the inpatient areas at the Polytrauma and Rehabilitation, Spinal Cord Injury and Community Living centers.
“Nobody comes to the hospital because they want to. They don’t come here to get away from their problems, they come here to face their problems,” Lynch said. “He really makes life a little bit better. He has unconditional love. You can’t help, when you see that tail wagging and that smile on his face, just to have a moment of just feeling good. He makes you feel good.”
And it’s not just the patients and visitors who have appreciated a visit from Hercules.
“The staff have a bounce in their step when they see him,” Lynch said. “I think that sets the tone for their day as well, which will hopefully help them provide even better customer service.”
Lynch, a Marine Corps Veteran and VA patient himself, said his goal is to have up to 10 certified handlers for Hercules and have a weekly visit schedule coordinated for areas throughout the hospital. For now, though, Gabe will stay on the daily schedule.
“We kind of became very close,” Lynch said. (Hercules) actually knows where Gonzalez’s room is now. When we get to that hallway, he goes right to the room. He really has a way of making people feel good.”