Dedication to a single pursuit is admirable. And when that pursuit is bringing cheer to sick children, long-term commitment is all the more laudable. But how many years must you commit before that dedication is heroic? Susan Hartzler and her Hungarian sheep dog Baldwin have been volunteering as handler and therapy dog for the sick children in their community hospital for nine years now. They are the longest lasting volunteers at their hospital. But what started Susan down the road to therapy dog work?
Susan had always been aware of therapy dogs and long felt an admiration toward those who selflessly helped others. However, it took a culmination of events to ignite her passion to the point where she actually volunteered her own time. That passion, once fueled, has kept her volunteering for years.
That first event that triggered her desire to help others was a sad occasion. Blondie, her canine companion for nine and a half years, passed on. Susan’s grief over Blondie’s death was so deep that she felt she never again wanted to invite another dog into her life, despite the fact that she had been a dog lover from the time she was a little girl dressing her Chihuahua, Fiesta, rather than her dolls. But she still was a dog lover so she decided to volunteer at the Lang Foundation where they used therapy dogs—she just had no intention of taking a dog home.
Baldwin, a little black Puli, had other plans.
The little dog immediately loved her with an intensity that caused her to question her decision. But she still wasn’t ready for a new dog. So she called her friends hoping they would reinforce her decision not to take the Puli. However, her friends kept telling her to bring Baldwin home. Finally she called her mother. Surely her mother would be the voice of reason. But her mother too told her to get the dog. Still Susan wasn’t ready. Despite the advice of her mother and all her friends she didn’t go back to Lang Foundation.
The next day her mother called. “Go to the Lang Foundation. I bought you the dog,” she said. It was as if being given the dog freed Susan to love the little Puli. Her mother’s gift allowed her to open her heart, and she brought Baldwin home.
Six months later Susan’s mother passed on. It was then that Baldwin’s abilities as a therapy dog began to show. When Susan felt like disengaging from life, Baldwin was there. His needs helped keep her involved and active. That tragedy of losing her mother was the final push that Susan needed on her road to volunteerism. She and Baldwin began preparing for therapy dog work. What better way was there to honor her mother - a teacher who had truly loved children?
Thus Susan and Baldwin set out to become licensed for therapy dog work. Baldwin had to learn how to deal with chaotic environments, and how to walk on a loose leash. He had to learn to walk around food at his level and ignore rather than grab at it. In addition to the rigorous training required for licensing, Susan also trained Baldwin to sit for pictures and to dress-up for the children’s entertainment.
“Little Maria had just finished a round of chemotherapy. Tired and shaky, this little girl obviously needed comforting. Baldwin… laid his little body across Maria’s lap and…lay still and breathed deeply. After all their training and the tricks they’d prepared, what Maria needed most was to sit quietly and stroke his fur.”
Even with all that training it was hard not to be nervous on their first visit. How would Baldwin react to actually being in the hospital? Still, they were well prepared. Baldwin was dressed in doctor’s scrubs complete with stethoscope. The staff even made him a doctor’s badge. And Susan knew she had to be calm or Baldwin would feed off of her nervousness.
On their first visit she and Baldwin visited only one girl. Little Maria had just finished a round of chemotherapy. She was pale and tired from her treatment. Her wrinkled hospital gown did nothing to disguise her gaunt frame. Tired and shaky, this little girl obviously needed comforting.
But Maria didn’t speak English. Susan didn’t speak Spanish. Nonetheless through pantomiming Susan was able to ask if Maria would like Baldwin to sit with her. Then Baldwin did something Susan hadn’t expected. He laid his little body across Maria’s lap and Maria began to pet him. This active little dog lay still and breathed deeply. After all their training and the tricks they’d prepared, what Maria needed most was to sit quietly and stroke his fur.
As Susan watched Maria began to match Baldwin’s deep breathing. And with each breath her color began returning. By the time Susan and Baldwin left Maria’s color had returned and she was smiling. With everything that little girl was going through, Baldwin had helped her smile.
The children might not always remember Susan, but they remember Baldwin. And Susan is constantly working with him to come up with new and interesting ways to entertain the children while keeping him comfortable in chaotic environments. Doing this volunteer work with Baldwin is the one thing in her life that Susan is the most proud of. And yet she says that it is a privilege. To see those kids in the hospital, still smiling, never giving up. “They are the heroes,” Susan says.
She loves her volunteer work, but it does sometimes make her sad because more people aren’t volunteering. Susan would like to get the message out about county hospitals. Unlike the larger children’s hospitals, county hospital lack funding. Those children need donations of both time and money. Susan and Baldwin are the longest lasting volunteers at their county facility. The work is intense and you may only get to help that child for a moment, but, as Susan says, “it’s a moment when they really need it”.
Susan doesn’t have children of her own. So she pours her love into her dogs and into the children they meet while volunteering. Each moment they can give is a comfort to the children, a tribute to her mother and a moment Susan still feels privileged to be a part of—even nine years later.
Thank you Susan, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Rachelle Mobley and Story of My Life®