Ally’s journey: How pet therapy helped me heal

By Ally Gillen

I’ve had a very eventful 14 years. My life has been full of happy, exciting and life-changing events that have made me who I am today. One event stands out that has changed my life the most.

When I was 10, I was sent to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota with mysterious symptoms that my pediatrician could not figure out.  At Children’s I saw many doctors including an infectious disease specialist and a rheumatologist. After many tests and procedures, the rheumatologist determined I had juvenile dermatomyositis. It’s a rare auto immune disease that affects the muscles and tissues of your body. My case was one of the worst my doctor had ever seen and from that point on, I started my 49-day stay at Children’s in St. Paul.

Karlos, the pet therapy dog, visits Ally.

It was no fun lying there in the hospital bed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I could not move (my muscles were so inflamed) and that made it even less fun because all I could do was watch TV. By the second day, I felt like I had pretty much watched everything.  Luckily, many people came to visit me including therapy dog teams, volunteers, and my family. Just seeing their faces made my days easier.

I loved visits from pet therapy dogs the most. I looked forward to their visits every day.  I missed my own dog from home so much and their visits helped me to miss her a little less. A special occupational therapist (OT) at Children’s learned how much I loved seeing the dogs and started to use them in her therapy sessions with me. At first all I could do was pet the dogs, but as my muscles got stronger, I would brush them, dress them, paint their toe nails and play tic-tac-toe on their backs. It was so much fun; I hardly knew I was working on just the things the OT wanted me to learn. The dogs helped me to get better, and I loved working with them.

We were so inspired by how much the therapy dogs aided my recovery that my family began training our family dog, and we now have a therapy dog of our very own!  In March 2011, our dog Angel passed her Pet Partners certification and now visits Children’s each week with my mom. This summer I got a new puppy of my own that I’m training to hopefully be our next therapy dog. After I finally left the hospital, I still got to work with a therapy dog in my OT sessions as an outpatient. I had fun doing obstacle courses and many other activities with the dogs.  It was so much fun that I looked forward to my OT sessions, and never once told my mom that I did not want to go.

Ally, Angel and Mickey

Throughout my life, there have been joys and challenges. During the rough times, I have always found a way to make the best of them.  I know that with the support of my family and friends I can get through anything.  As I get older I will carry the lessons I have learned throughout my life with me and share them with all the people I meet along the way.  I am hopeful that I can become an OT myself someday and work with therapy dogs and their owners to help other kids just like me!

Ally, 14, is a Youth Advisory Council member at Children’s. You can hear her talk more about pet therapy here. Learn about our Pets Assisting with Healing (PAWH) Volunteer Program here.

2 thoughts on “Ally’s journey: How pet therapy helped me heal

  1. Beth Anderson

    My son recently worked with a therapy dog in his speech therapy session. I was amazed at the difference the presence of the dog made for him. The dog provided a calming effect for the session which lead to more work being accomplished. He was motivated to work harder and longer all by that amazing little dog!

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