Dr Jill McIlraith
In the realm of angels and miracles, a schnoodle would seem an unlikely heroine.
But making grief bearable, helping a 68 year old lady fall in love again and bringing a family together is all in a day’s work for Maisie, a schnauzer-poodle bundle of cuddles and energy.
Some colleagues tease me (others just think it slightly odd) that I remember the names of my patients’ dogs more often than I remember the names of my patient’s children. Asking about their pets has become part of the therapeutic bond with many of my patients.
I enjoy looking at photos of their dogs and cats and some patients have brought their dogs to our practice to be introduced, to the slight disapproval of some staff who think dogs shouldn’t darken the doors of a medical centre.
But what doggy patients and I both know, deep down in our souls, is that dogs are often more important to healing than the tests I order, examinations I do or pills I hand out.
Maisie epitomises this. When her owner lost her husband to cancer of the lung, she was devastated—the house was empty and cold and she found herself staying late at work to avoid going home. Her family, although all close by, were busy with their own lives.
Talking about grief and coping strategies, I suggested that she consider getting a dog. Above my desk is my favourite photo of my daughter Cally with Archie and Boris, our Cairn terriers, all three looking alert and ready to tackle the world. The picture is often a talking point for patients—children especially want to know the dogs’ names and what breed they are.
I talked to Glenna (and I use her name and Maisie’s with her consent) about how dogs put the world into perspective and were an antidote to angst and sadness. She was dubious about my suggestion but said she would talk to her family about it.
Glenna had never been a dog person. Although her family had had a dog when her children were young she says she never really bonded with it.
So it was a shock when a small black bundle of soft fur and liveliness arrived and she was instantly smitten.
“I thought I was too old to fall in love with a puppy but she has been like miracle. To have this little breathing creature greet me each day the way she does—rolling over on her back with all four paws in the air—before cuddling up, has been just the most wonderful thing.”
“She has filled the house with energy, life and love. It has been a journey of discovery that has taken me by surprise. I share my ups and downs with her and talk to her all the time.’’
Glenna says that she would never have anticipated that she could fall so hopelessly in love with a dog.
“I always thought people who were nutty about their dogs were slightly odd. But now I get it—you can become besotted with a dog. I can see how they become a central part of one’s life. Maisie has been life changing. “
And Glenna says that Maisie has been wonderful for her whole family and has brought them closer together—she is now an important friend to her grandchildren and the extended family. She has become a source of joy for everyone and has helped them deal with the grief all were feeling after the loss of their father and granddad.
Doggie members of her family have offered advice about where Maisie should sleep, how to toilet train her and how to get the balance right between loving her so much, and not letting her become the boss.
It has also had a direct therapeutic benefit for Glenna in that she is exercising more now, as Maisie doesn’t care if it is sunny or if the southerly is howling through Dunedin. She is always thrilled and ready to go walking and tackles each day with delightful exuberance.
Many of my patients know that I like animals and have a menagerie including two pet goats and one elderly ewe called Lambchops who shall never be asked to fulfill her named destiny. Most also know that I continue to love them even when the human-animal interface is challenged as happened when my one horse Larry bucked me off last Easter and broke my pelvis and five vertebrae.
Larry has now been retired from being ridden, declared too unpredictable by the local horse whisperer after nine months of attempted rehabilitation. But he remains part of my family, living up to his name by happily chomping his way through knee high grass as a paddock mate to Jimmy. He still has a place in my heart.
Animals are often an integral part of patients’ stories and all the odd things that happen. I am often astounded at how complex ordinary lives can be and how their animals are interwoven into their narratives.
Animals impact directly on the well-being of many of them. What can be sadder than having to say goodbye to a dog who has loved you unconditionally for years and doesn’t understand that frailty has meant that a rest home now beckons?
Ripples from such sadness can manifest in a myriad of ways from depression to chest pain, just as the joy of loving a pet can mitigate such symptoms. Another of my patients has a tiny Chihuahua, so small he sits comfortably in one hand. But he has been enough of a force to counterbalance her having significant congenital medical problems and a very dysfunctional family. Teddy of course is oblivious to his pivotal role he plays in this young woman’s life.
A patient recently told me her favourite story of how dogs came to play such a important part in the lives of humans: When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden and the gap between Heaven and Earth grew wider and wider, at the last moment a dog leapt across the chasm. This was so humans would know the benefits of unconditional love and the joy that everyday dogs bring to everyday lives.
As doctors, we try to help patients interpret what is happening to them and be there on their journeys through life. Sometimes we underestimate the impact of advice we offer and not all my well-meaning suggestions to patients have been as successful as Maisie.
It is the only time that I have said to a patient that they should consider getting a dog. Usually I would be wary of asking anyone to make such a commitment and generally am very against live animals being given as presents. But the bond that has formed between Glenna and Maisie has been more successful at helping her cope with life and loss than anything else I have done.
Maisie, of course is blissfully unaware that she is a heroine. She is too busy doing her doggy thing of living and loving in the present.
John Berger, in A Fortunate Man, his famous essay about a country doctor, stresses that a vital element of being a good doctor is the ability to identify with patients, to form a fraternal bond.  What patients often need, is not more medicine, but “more doctor”—it is the personal interaction and connectedness that is integral to the healing process.
For some patients what may be most beneficial for them is “more dog”. What could be more miraculous than a gift as small as a five kilogram schnoodle that keeps on healing?
 John Berger: A Fortunate Man. 1967. London: Penguin, 1981.
Dr Jill McIlraith: Jill McIlraith is general practitioner who wanted to be policewoman or a vet, instead worked as journalist and then went to medical school as a mature student. Writing and animals continue to be a source of comfort and sanity.
“Miraculous Maisie” was previously posted on the Medical Stories website