The healing power of pets

April 16, 2009 7:33:01 PM PDT
Studies have shown that patients who have emotional support from friends and family recover better from major medical procedures. With that in mind, doctors at UCSF bent a few rules for a surgery patient whose support system walks on four legs.

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Ana Aureoles is disabled, visually impaired and moments away from being wheeled into an operating room. But she is is not alone. Lying by at her hospital bed is Henry Miller, the service dog who has been by her side for nearly 14 years, and one reason she's able to live by herself.

"Because of mobility problems with my traumatic brain injury, he can help me with my balance, he can pick up objects off the floor when I drop them," said Ana.

And since he is her only family in San Francisco, doctors at UCSF gave Henry extraordinary access in order to accompany Ana as she faces a delicate surgery to remove a tumor in front of her brain.

"The risks are great. If there's a problem, there is risk to the eye optic nerve, big blood vessel in area and of course the adjacent brain," said Dr. Ivan El-Sayed.

"The only place he can't go is in the operating room, and I wish he could. Having him there gives us both a reason to survive. It's like death do us part," said Ana.

As surgeons attempt to reach the tumor through Ana's nasal passages, Henry waits downstairs with hospital staff. Ana has sent a thank you letter down with him. But as a family member might watch the clock, Henry watches the door.

"I'll tell you, love is love, and there is so much love between Henry and Ana, and I think it's very healing," said Vicki Kleeman from UCSF Patient Volunteer Services.

Finally, after three hours, Henry and Ana are both heading for the recovery unit, where the hospital allowed Henry to stay by her bedside.

While exceptions like this are still rare, officials at UCSF say they have approved similar arrangements on a case by case base, when they believe a service animal can help a patient recover.

"A number of studies have shown that patients who recover alone -- versus with family and companionship -- the patients with family and companionship recover faster and do better and I think Henry will be a prime example of that," said UCSF neurosurgeon Dr. Manish Aghi.

When we caught up with Ana a few weeks after her surgery, she still had slight discomfort from the packing placed in her nasal passages, but was up and walking and hoping to soon take Henry for a walk at Fort Mason.

"I don't think I could have done it without him. I would have been worried, just looking down seeing him on the floor by my bed meant the world," said Ana.

While her prognosis for full recovery is good, Ana is now trying to make an adjustment for Henry's health.

Because of canine arthritis, she's often forced to carry him up the stairs to her apartment and is now hoping to find a first floor unit.

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