NELL JORDAN was used to people bursting into tears when they saw her, but this particular woman rivaled the floodgates at Hoover Dam. But of course, the woman's overflowing eyes fastened not on Nell in her clean white tennies, Wal-Mart khakis, and green polo shirt, but on Piggy in her freshly brushed reddish-brown fur, pointy ears, liquid-brown eyes, and the green doggie vest that announced she was a registered therapy dog.
An older gent across the room from the weeper nudged his wife. "Look, Ethel! It's a dog! Right here in the surgery waiting room! Don't that beat all?"
"My word! Isn't he cute?" Ethel made a clucking noise to get Piggy's attention, and others seated in the uncomfortable waiting room chairs also made bids to be noticed, but Piggy focused on the woman sitting in the corner--the one suffering the waterworks.
A younger version of the distraught woman--a daughter, Nell speculated--tried to comfort her. "Mom, it's okay."
But Piggy knew better what the woman needed. The corgi paddled forward on abbreviated legs, stuck a wet nose beneath the woman's hand, and settled firmly against her leg.
Soft comments from a rapt audience:
"Oh, isn't that just darling!"
"Don't that beat all!"
"What a good dog!"
"What'd they do, cut her legs off at the knee?"
Everyone in the room had the courtesy to stare at the dog, not at the woman making such an emotional scene. People waiting for a loved one in surgery or waiting for their own turn under the knife knew about tears, and they didn't begrudge the distressed woman her release.
"Her name is Piggy," Nell said.
"Piggy," the tearful one quavered, and didn't take her eyes from the dog. Piggy sighed in contentment as the woman found just the right spot behind one of her big ears. "You're a wonderful little dog, Piggy." The tears eased a bit as she dabbed at her face with a handkerchief. "A wonderful dog. I just . . . just, well, you know, there's something about a dog." She sighed and bit her lip, then said in a quiet, broken voice, "Since my mother's accident two days ago I haven't been able to cry. It stayed inside me and just burned and hurt, you know? But I couldn't cry. Until I saw the dog. There's just something about a dog." She shook her head. "And now I can't stop crying. But it almost feels good. I'm sorry to be such a blubberer."
"Not a problem." Nell gave her a warm smile. "It doesn't bother Piggy a bit."
The daughter gave her mother's hand a comforting squeeze. "Gran's going to be just fine, Mom. I know she is." Then she smiled up at Nell. "Is she a guide dog or something?"
"Piggy's a therapy dog who visits here at the hospital."
"Do you take her into patient rooms?" someone across the waiting room asked.
"We go everywhere but obstetrics." Nell smiled. "They don't need our help in there."
That earned a laugh.
"Show them your trick, Piggy." Nell waggled an index finger at the dog.
Piggy gave Nell a disgusted look, but she lifted her stubby front leg in the semblance of a wave. The trick earned her a round of applause and a few chortles, then another ovation when she caught the tiny treat that Nell tossed her way.
"She's a mercenary little soul," Nell explained. "Works for food."
"Don't we all?" said a youngish man in worn cowboy boots and a battered Stetson.
Everyone wanted Piggy's attention, reaching out to touch her and tell her what an extraordinary dog she was. Piggy took the attention with queenly condescension while occasionally darting beneath a chair to grab a cracker crumb or peanut that the housekeeping staff had missed. People in the waiting room often munched on vending machine food, and sometimes they weren't too neat about it. The occasional leavings made the surgery waiting room Piggy's favorite stop in the hospital. Nell had supposedly trained her not to take anything off the floor during their visits, but Piggy had become expert at darting after crumbs when Nell wasn't watching.
"She's a hungry little dude," the guy in the Stetson commented.
"You're right, but she's supposed to be on a diet."
"You mean, she's not supposed to look like a basketball with legs?"
Piggy halted her crumb search long enough to glare at him, but the opening of a door distracted her. From the inner surgery sanctum a nurse wheeled out a teenage girl with a huge bandage on her arm. "Hi there, Piggy," the nurse said in a cheery voice.
Nearly all the staff knew Piggy's name. Few knew Nell's. But that was fine with Nell. Piggy did most of the work during their visits, anyway.
"Hey, dog!" The teenager dropped her good arm beside the chair and wriggled her fingers. Piggy condescended to let her scratch an ear. "I didn't know they let dogs in the hospital."
The nurse laughed. "Only because Piggy's a very special dog. And there's a few other special creatures we let visit."
"Like Dr. Tolliver?"
"Don't let Dr. Tolliver hear you call him a creature." The girl's mother had gathered up the afghan she'd been knitting and joined them. "Not after he fixed you up like new." She gave the nurse an anxious look.
"Good as new," the nurse confirmed. "The doctor will talk to you while I wheel Tiffany out to the entrance. I'll stay with her until you bring up your car."
"Wait!" Tiffany objected as the nurse pushed the wheelchair toward the door. "I have to say 'bye to . . . what's the dog's name?"
"Piggy," Nell supplied.
"Piggy! Oh, man! She looks like one, too. 'Bye, Piggy! 'Bye, Piggy!"
Piggy huffed out an indignant snort as the waiting room door closed behind the girl.
"She's sensitive about her figure," Nell explained with a grin.
Most of the waiting room chuckled, including the woman who had wept so on Piggy's entrance.
"Never seen such a thing," one man observed with a snort. "Next thing you know, they'll be bringing in a whole petting zoo."
OKAY. THIS requires a bit of clarification. Me, Piggy, a therapy dog. I can almost hear you laughing. Just don't get carried away with that snorting and snickering, people, because it's not that funny. I'll admit I'm hardly the type to bring comfort to the sick and distressed. I'm a heartbreaker, not a heart-warmer. At least, Lydia Keane was a heartbreaker, and proud of it. Piggy, on the other hand . . .
Well, let's just say I had trouble ignoring all those dog instincts that came with the fat furry body. Dogs genuinely like people. It's one of their greatest weaknesses. They're born chumps. A friendly word or a pat on the head sends their little canine hearts into somersaults of joy, and they're only too eager to repay the attention by cuddling, kissing, and generally making themselves look foolish.
Of course, as Lydia Keane I did a bit of cuddling and kissing in my time, but Lydia required more foreplay than a pat on the head.
But back to the point. The longer I stayed in the dog suit, the more I found my nature changing to incorporate Dog. Stanley no doubt thought the change was a positive one. He would. In the beginning, losing my sharp edge bothered me. Not to mention the total embarrassment of occasionally getting an urge to sniff dog butts or pounce on anything that resembles a ball. But by the time I arrived in Arizona, I had come to accept my fate with good grace, or what passed for good grace with me. Lydia Keane would have laughed at the idea of spreading a little comfort in a hospital, and the first sight of a bedpan would have sent her running. But Piggy found that bedpans have a certain allure--to the point that Nell had to work hard to keep my nose away from them. And bringing a smile to someone who needed a bit of cheer warmed the doggy part of my heart.
I don't want you to think I had turned into some kind of lame Pollyanna, though. I may have lost some of my edge, but not my smarts. Prancing around the hospital as a therapy dog had certain rewards, especially for a dog on a diet. For instance, in the surgery waiting room is a table generally piled high with Danish rolls. Not that Nell would ever let me grab one (I tried once when I thought she wasn't paying attention. Turns out she was paying attention.) But the people in the waiting room munch on the Danishes and drop crumbs on the chairs and floor. Very enticing. My short little legs place my nose close enough to the carpet that grabbing a crumb or two takes only half a second. The crumbs are in my stomach and I'm looking as innocent as a newborn puppy by the time Nell notices I've even moved.
And the surgery waiting room isn't the only area where an alert corgi can earn a bonus. Patients are always trying to coddle me with crackers from their lunch or maybe a Jell-O cup. (I especially like raspberry.) Nell asks them not to feed me--she can be a real killjoy--but some of the patients are sneaky enough to rival a corgi. Occasionally a piece of breakfast roll finds its way beneath the bedcovers just an inch away from my nose, or a Jell-O cup drifts within reach of my tongue when Nell's eyes are turned somewhere else. People commonly turn up their noses at hospital food, but a corgi doesn't turn a nose up at anything edible.
But, lest you think I don't work hard for these perks, let me clue you in that the hospital is not all fun and games for a therapy dog. We are sensitive creatures--yes, even me. A dog picks up on emotion much faster than a person. And a hospital has emotions ricocheting off the walls like balls in a squash court. Anxiety, love, sadness, grief, joy, boredom--they come at you from all directions. The dog part of me always wants to respond, but the part of me that is still Lydia tries to duck like a kid playing dodge ball. My internal battles get quite interesting, let me tell you. So don't think I didn't earn all those ear scratches, Danish crumbs, and Jell-O cups as I did my Florence Nightingale act. I hope Stanley took note of how hard I worked to bring such special attention to those in need.
For instance, take the day that I did my little tricks in the surgery waiting room (Nell thought they were funny; I found them totally embarrassing) and won the heart of that teenager in the wheelchair. That day I was called upon to rise above and beyond the usual role of a therapy dog, and the reward I got is pretty much what this whole story is about.
There I was in the surgery waiting room, innocently going about the business of being entertaining, when the nurse from CCU walks through the door. For those of you who aren't hospital professionals like me, CCU stands for Critical Care Unit. Yes, we dogs do visit there. Even though most of the patients have inconvenient tubes running from various body parts to beeping and blinking machines, they enjoy a friendly dog as much as anyone else.
As I was saying, though, in walked Stephanie Combs from CCU to give Nell an anxious look.
"I thought you two might be here this time of morning," she said. "Were you planning on coming over to CCU?"
"Our next stop," Nell told her.
"That's good. I wanted to be sure you stopped by, because we have a patient in there who really wants to see you."
I was a little surprised myself. We had many fans in the hospital, but not often did they want a command performance.
"I'd make it real soon," Stephanie said, which sounded a bit ominous to me.
Nell took Stephanie at her word and waved a friendly so long to the people in the surgery waiting room. "Wave 'bye, Piggy."
Stupid dog tricks. Everyone was amused but me.
CCU was busy that morning. A couple of doctors in green scrubs sat at the nurses' station scribbling on charts. A team of three emergency medical techs in their snappy uniforms were talking to a patient being hooked into a heart monitor. (Yes, even as a dog, I still have an acute eye for fashion, and let me assure you, the EMTs have it all over the docs.) And every room was full. Stephanie escorted us into a room that was dim and stuffy. The drapes were pulled against the bright February sunshine, and the lights were off. Though the air-conditioning busily pumped in fresh air, the room smelled of things you don't want to hear about. Probably no one noticed it but me, but dog noses have a gift for detecting such things.
Stephanie greeted the man in the bed with her professionally cheery voice. "Mr. Cramer, look who's come to see you. It's Piggy."
Frank Cramer. What do you know? I'd barely recognized his scent through all the other odors. I was always glad to see Frank. He was a crotchety old devil, but he had class.
In a whispered aside to Nell, Stephanie explained: "He's in a bad way, and ordinarily we wouldn't allow any visitors but family, but he's been asking specifically to see Piggy and you."
Notice how she put my name first? As it should be.
The wispy voice from the bed didn't sound like Frank's usual bellow. But it was him, all right. When Nell lifted me up to the bed I recognized him right off, though he didn't look too good. Once I got settled beside him where I wouldn't step on any important tubes or body parts, I looked in his watery eyes and sensed he was very close to leaving, closer maybe than the medical people knew. I know things like that, because I've been there, done that, and won't soon forget the journey. Dying isn't a bad thing, really, but it's something you remember for a while.
"Piggy." He put his gnarled old hand on my head. "How the hell are you, old girl?"
I laid my head carefully on his chest as he made a feeble effort to pet me. Poor Frank. I'd been visiting him for the last six months in a swank nursing home. As I said, Frank was a crotchety old so-and-so, and I don't think family and friends, if he had any, paid him much mind. Probably because he complained about everything and anything, yelled at people just for the pleasure of yelling, tried to boss everyone around, and generally made himself unpleasant to anyone who ventured near.
Excerpted from Gone to the Dogs by Emily Carmichael. Copyright © 2003 by Emily Carmichael. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.