Four-legged therapist brightens day of former pilot recovering from TBI



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.”

IMAGE: Robert Lynch, Gabe Gonzales and his mother Miriam.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 Center 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.”

Watch this video to meet Hercules:

To see video of Hercules’ visit to Gonzalez, go to https://www.facebook.com/VATampa/videos/1892208020830174/.

Author

Ed Drohan

Ed Drohan is a public affairs specialist, at the James A. Haley VA Hospital, Tampa, Florida, and a retired Air Force master sergeant who has reported from Somalia, Haiti, New Orleans (post-Katrina) and Afghanistan.

Comments

  1. leslie Avery Schwandt    

    I’m a disable Vietnam Vet I’m would love to get a Great dog to help me in my life San Manuel, AZ

  2. leslie Avery Schwandt    

    I’m a disable Vietnam Vet I’m would love to get a Great dog to help me in my life San Manuel, AZ.

  3. Donald D Davis    

    Wish we had one at the Bob Michael VA Clinic in Peoria, Il.

  4. Mac Porter    

    I currently have a registered service dog that is trained to monitor sleep apnea and PTSD. As a 100% total and permanent Vietnam Veteran, I am struggling to keep up with her required shots and Veterinarian visit costs. Would certainly like to be able to keep her, because she is just a life saver. With limited and fixed income, it’s a struggle. I previously requested my Psychiatrist to write me a prescription for her, that maybe I could get some small assistance from the VA to help take care of her. The Psychiatrist was afraid that he might lose his position if he were to help me. The dog greatly helps and some areas of the VA encourages Service Dogs, but now that I have trained her, registered her, and been able to pay her way so far. Now the VA doesn’t seem to really care! Hard to imagine a compassionate VA Psychiatrist would fear his position status to help a needy Veteran! Just don’t know which way to turn. Very Disappointing and PTSD triggers!
    Mac Porter

    1. marcia marrs    

      Mac, lots of people would love to help, but you have to find them first. Check with SPCA, American Legion,
      AmVets, DAV, Wounded Warrior Project…

    2. Charlene Longo    

      Hello,
      I don’t know if you live in subsidized housing (or if you might be willing to get an apt. in a subsidized housing complex for disabled/handicapped) or not. But, I know that ongoing medication costs are deducted from your rent (through a formula) and if you have a therapy pet, that their maintenance costs are deducted as well (also through a formula of some sort).
      I live in the state of New York and I live in subsidized housing. I don’t know what state you live in, but you might try asking a social worker at your local VA hospital to see what possibilities may exist for you.
      Just a thought. I wanted to give you some encouragement.
      Best,
      A fellow veteran

  5. Richard G Kensinger    

    As a clinical psychologist and a former AF medic during Vietnam, I believe that every combat soldier should have their one personal dog. Besides offering unconditional love and + regard, they provide the Vet with object constantcy. Their impact is immeasurable!
    Rich, MSW

  6. Nancy j Hohenegger    

    I think it would be great for “any” veteran to receive such help, this does include veterans that are incarcerated, they need therapy too !,

  7. Connie Stallworth    

    My Dad has a dog, though, not a trained dog such as was in the article, he is very good for my Dad. I do think pets are good for folks who have special needs. My Dad is legally blind, but Doodle Bug certainly lights up his life!

  8. Rick Clouse    

    I have a great service . Her name is LifeSaver. I tell little kids it’s (just like the candy. I don’t have to go into the real story behind Lifesavers name. I Adopted her the day after my discharge from the VA hospital in Muskogee OK. I was a patient in the 5 East department. A lot Vets pass through there, some involuntarily, I was a volunteer after six and a half hours in the ER were the Great Doctor’s and Nurses and thank God the social services staff worked to save my life, again. It was Jade, a student working with the VA hospital emergency Social Worker who asked me if I have any friends or family. I said no I had burned those bridges long ago. She said “get a dog man” so I did, after 14 days of Detox and medication change. IT’S totally lame to say a dog has worked a miracle in my life, or the new meds are working really well. What I can say is I feel good. I look forward to tomorrow and more adventures with my friend Lifesaver.

  9. ANDREW F KJELLBERG    

    i am disabled (100%) vietnam combat usaf vet and 72 yrs old. i visit a va clinic or va hospital at least 1-2 times a week due to complications from agent orange, diabetes 2 and peripheral neuropathy. my wife will not let me have a therapy or service dog in the house as she is caring for me at home and for her 92 yr old ww11 veteran father in his apartment and can’t take on taking care of some one (thing) else. at va facilities in boston (west roxbury vamc and Jamaica plains vamc, i often meet other vets that have these animals. i always ask if the dog is working and know enough not to touch the animal if it is. most times, the owner of the dog will allow it to be patted if i sit on a chair next to it………..i love dogs and have had several over my lifetime, but i walk very unsteady with a cane……….my point……….are any therapy or service dogs assigned to various va facilities in the boston or central massachusetts area where a vet like me can visit with them for a while on a shared basis….

  10. Cindy Wozniak    

    I would like to know more about volunteering for this program in Grand Rapids, MI

  11. Tony Prince    

    What a wonderful story about Officer Gonzalez and Hercules. My wife suprised me with a beagle puppy after I had a near fatal accident. His name was Hercules. She named him after the C-130’s I worked on in the USAF. It enriched my life so much.
    Thanks to all those that help all veterans, everyone has their own story.
    Mac I wish you and your pet the best. God speed ahead for all those who served and the support of the VA caregivers.

  12. Marc J. Cohen    

    This can also be done with rabbits. My rabbit is certified through my local VA, as an emotional support animal, as have my other rabbits. They have traveled all over the USA with me, much to the delight of others. I know one guy who brings his rabbits to nursing homes and hospices.

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