“The way Bunker loved me, so fully, clearly, and without exception, helped me remember every day to try to bring that kind of love to myself and others in my life.” ~ Julie Barton, Dog Medicine
Today, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about, or what I wanted to research, learn and share, so I sat with it for a long time, as I often do, and I was inspired to write about something I have come to know as being universally understood – the healing power of animals. I have more to come on this in the future, but for now, this first story is one of a special cat that found me at a vulnerable time.
Growing up, my life was always peppered with pets, mainly rescue dogs, and they are a positive part of my childhood memories. Along the way, I tried to parent a couple of kittens during my teen years, but my father won that battle, so I just set my sights on becoming a fur parent to a cat when I was on my own. That time finally came when I set off for medical school in London, Ontario in the summer of 1994.
Then entered Sammy.
My sister came to help me get settled before medical school orientation, and with that, we went to a pet store and I adopted the runt in a litter of tabby cats. I mention the fact that he was a runt as he grew to be a wonderfully fat cat – and I mean that in the most joyful way. I loved this cat instantly and felt less home sick and lonely.
Then soon after entered my now husband Colin.
Colin quickly realized that Sammy and I were a package deal. He never had a cat growing up, so didn’t know if he was a ‘cat person’, but I can tell you, he and Sammy became fast friends. Those were the days before iPhones, when photos had to actually be developed, and it is remarkable how many I have of just Colin and Sammy over the years.
Sammy was always there for me and saw me through the ups and downs of medical school. He gave me something to look forward to at the end of the long day and a purpose to care for and love. He was great company for me when Colin wasn’t around and made us feel like a family when he was. He gave me much needed perspective when I felt like I wasn’t ‘good enough’ to be a doctor (an all too common sentiment of people in that phase of medical training). I was always top notch in his eyes and a Medical Degree wasn’t going to change his image.
During our 4 years of medical school, Sammy came on a couple of big adventures with Colin and I – once he flew to New Brunswick with us, and he even accompanied us on very long a road trip to and from Alberta for some of our electives (about 3200 km each way!).
Then entered allergies.
Colin started to develop allergy symptoms, including asthma, during our time in London and was referred to an allergist. After some allergy testing, the specialist determined that our ‘cat’ had to go (imagine!) if Colin wanted to improve his symptoms. Colin always joked that he didn’t wanted to know the outcome of me deciding on him versus Sammy, so we set out to find other ways to reduce the dander in our little apartment. That meant closing our door at night (I loved him sleeping with us, but I knew it was a small sacrifice on my part), and bathing Sammy. Yes, bathing a cat is no small feat.
Fortunately for all involved, Colin’s symptoms stabilized and he seemed to develop a tolerance to Sammy’s dander (which happened with subsequent pets as well). We got through that time in medical school and then we were off to Calgary, Alberta to start residency – another adventure for Sammy. We lived in 4 different places in 5 years. Not only that, but our son and daughter entered the picture during that 5 year time span too.
And all that remained was unconditional love.
Sammy wove into the fabric of our family such that he was a reliable presence full of unconditional love, even when we felt beaten down during medical training, eventually combined with parenting young children. Sammy’s story doesn’t end in Calgary – he moved to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island with us after residency, and lived a full 13 years prior to his passing in the spring of 2008.
This introduction of Sammy is juxtapositioned with the stress we face during times of transition and perceived insurmountable obstacles, much like I felt during medical training. With my interest and dedication to the well-being of physician colleagues, I am seeing the devastation that can come without the supports or feeling of hope that is needed to get through those formative years of medical education.
It is no accident that Sammy found me. His presence seemed to heal what couldn’t be seen, those wounds we all carry around when we think we won’t make it through, and when we are filled with self-doubt and anxiety. Animals are healers.
Julie Barton – Dog Medicine: How My Dog Saved Me From Myself
Mayo Clinic – Pet Therapy: Man’s Best Friend As Healer