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Hospital dogs making friends fast

Boston Medical Center program finds dogs’ slobbery brand of love is good medicine for the soul

Dexter (center), Maestro (left), and Georgie are Boston Medical Center therapy dogs. They come to work with their people and visit patients.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Dexter (center), Maestro (left), and Georgie are Boston Medical Center therapy dogs. They come to work with their people and visit patients.

On April 16 last year, the morning after, Mike Hurley walked into the surgical waiting room at Boston Medical Center, into a tense and dazed crowd of people desperate to hear how their loved ones were doing. And he brought with him a simple question: Do you want to pet a dog?

The answer was no. No one wanted to pet his dog.

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All of a sudden, the whole idea felt ridiculous to Hurley. He wasn’t a therapist. He was a clinical engineer, a quiet member of the hospital support staff for 14 years, the guy from the basement who came to fix the machines. What was he thinking walking into that room with his dog?

Hurley politely told the families he would be available all day, and took Dexter, his 9-year-old boxer, to his office in the basement. Just before lunch, he grabbed Dexter’s leash, took a hard swallow, and returned to the waiting room with the same question: Would anyone like a visit from Dexter?

This time, he got a very different answer. One woman said she would. Then another. Then it snowballed. “Everyone could see what he does, which is he greets you like you’re his new best friend.”

Less than a week before, Hurley and Dexter had made their first appearance at Boston Medical Center, the inaugural duo in the hospital’s Healing Paws program, an experiment to see if dogs could provide in-hospital comfort to patients and families going through trauma and illness. Months before, Hurley had answered a hospital-wide e-mail looking for staff members willing to take their dog through the training. When the explosions occurred, he and Dexter had seen a total of four “trial patients.” No one was sure it would work. By the time Hurley and Dexter returned to the waiting room that afternoon for a third visit, there was a clear sign that it was: Several people had saved pieces of their lunch for Dexter.

There was one man in the waiting room who took a particular interest in Dexter. He told Hurley several times that his wife would like a visit from Dexter when she got out of surgery.

‘During the Marathon, Dexter was my savior. He was always a loving part of the day.’

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The next day, Hurley opened the door to her room. The man was asleep in a chair. His wife was on the bed. Hurley froze, and tried to sneak out without them noticing, but Dexter wasn’t having it. The man saw them and sat up. His wife smiled at Dexter, who immediately introduced himself as her new best friend.

Hurley sat with the family for a bit. They talked about their dogs at home. They never said anything about the bandages or the bombing. They asked him to keep coming back.

For the next two weeks, Hurley’s job was to take Dexter around to the victims and their families. It was something so small, in a moment that felt so huge, but everywhere they went, Dexter’s goofy joy was greeted in kind.

The staff of the hospital, going through its own pain, loved Dexter sightings. He became an icon in the hallways, the BMC mascot. People kept treats for him and took pictures and created a Facebook fan page. Dexter selfies became a thing. “During the Marathon, Dexter was my savior,” said Nicole Mannion, an occupational therapist who worked with many of the critically injured patients. “He was always a loving part of the day.”

And among the staff, Hurley stopped being just the guy who fixed their pumps and monitors. He became Dexter’s dad.

Pretty quickly, Dexter’s time with the bombing victims ended. By the end of two weeks, most everyone he had been visiting had moved on to a rehab hospital, including that first family, the ones who loved Dexter the most. Hurley and Dexter didn’t get to say goodbye.

As spring became summer, Hurley continued to bring Dexter in for rounds on Wednesdays. But with the physical wounds of the bombing closed, Hurley returned to his job in the basement with the parts and the tools, where he proceeded to spiral into a deep misery and have the worst summer of his life.

He didn’t sleep. It took Hurley a while, but he finally admitted to himself that he hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep since the bombings. His mind lived in replay and worry. He couldn’t stomach looking at the news. One nice day, he went for a walk around Jamaica Pond with some friends and their dogs, and a woman was wearing a Boston Strong T-shirt. He could not look at it. Hated being near it. Looked at her dog instead.

When the six-month anniversary rolled around, the hospital reminded the staff that there were still people to talk to, and Hurley took them up on it, if only, he thought, to hear that he didn’t need therapy. He didn’t lose a leg. He wasn’t in an operating room. He hadn’t even seen an open wound.

“All I did was bring my dog to work,” was his refrain. The first thing his therapist did was tell him to shut up about that.

“You saw more than 99 percent of everyone, and they’re still grieving,” his therapist told him.

Around the hospital, it was clear Dexter had been a success. The program quickly expanded, and there are now five trained therapy dogs at Boston Medical Center, including a puppy named Riley who puts his head on your lap and looks up at you with big brown eyes when told to “visit.”

Dr. Peter Burke, the chief of trauma services, said that a few years ago he would have thought the idea was ridiculous, dogs in a hospital. “But having something like this that’s physical and safe and unconditional love, I can’t tell you how much it helps.”

Hurley says he’s much better now, as the anniversary passes. He has allowed himself to grieve, to respect the stress he was under during those two weeks, and to feel proud of his contribution. He no longer says “All I did was bring my dog to work,” because he knows that is not the full story. Dexter now has a Boston Strong ribbon on the vest he wears to work every Wednesday.

But what’s tough about a hospital is that it doesn’t end. There’s always someone in rough shape, someone in a bed or on the staff who could use a little Dexter; his go-to move is to push up against them with his broad head and demand some love.

Dexter has visited hundreds of patients and staff since the bombings. And Hurley has watched, again and again, as the simple magic of a slobbering dog has transformed moods on a bad day. Which is why Hurley, who is 46, says this has also been the best year of his life, the most meaningful.

One day recently, Hurley and Dexter were walking through a park near their home in the South End, and a homeless man looked like he was about to ask for money. Instead, as they passed, the man looked at Dexter and said: “That dog is the only visitor I had when I was in Boston Medical Center.”

Send your message to the runners of the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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