Going to the emergency room is never fun for anyone. You are usually in pain, sometimes not thinking straight, and you might even be having difficulty communicating properly. If you have a service dog, the last thing you want to deal with is someone trying to challenge your rights to have your dog with you at this critical time.
Ripley is very clear with her thoughts on the matter. She wants to be right with me. The first time we went into the ER together at Kaiser, she was in the small room with me, on a leash, alongside Sabrina, my wife. I was wheeled out of the room and down the hall for a CAT scan, where I disappeared behind a shut door for several minutes, as Ripley and Sabrina waited in the hall. As we were wheeling back to my room, Ripley was walking alongside the gurney, trying to touch my hand.
When we reached the room, and my gurney was put back into place, without warning Ripley suddenly leapt up at the foot of the bed and landed right in between my legs. She did it with tremendous grace and elegance. She knew I was in pain, and was careful not to jostle me. She laid her head down and settled in, as if to say, “That’s it. She’s not going anywhere else now without me.” A doctor and a nurse walked by my room right at that moment, and gave startled looks. I said, “I hope this is OK.” They said, “As long as you’re comfortable, it’s fine.”
This has become our standard. If I am ever in a hospital or medical setting, up on a gurney, Ripley wants to be next to me, particularly if she knows I am in some distress. It makes perfect sense – at home, part of her job is to watch over me and provide alerts when I am sleeping, so she lies either next to me when Sabrina is working her graveyard shifts, or at the foot of the bed on other nights. A hospital gurney is even taller than a regular bed; she can barely see me. In her opinion, I am sure, she’s thinking, “How can I do my job from down here?”
Because I have a seizure disorder, I recently had to go in for an EEG test. The test lasts about 20-30 minutes. Sabrina, Ripley and I were all in the room with the technician. The fabulous headgear is the height of fashion. I was joking, because the chest strap was even in rainbow colors – was it special for LGBT patients?
After getting into all my gear, I got up on the bed to lie down, and it was clear Ripley wanted to join me. I asked the technician if this was OK, and she said as long as Ripley was still, it would be fine. Ripley is very good at being still. She seems to understand this is part of the deal – she gets to be next to me if she is very quiet. So I had my EEG with Ripley in my arms. The technician found it particularly amusing, because the tests are recorded not only via a graph printout, but also on video. So some doctor would be reviewing this, and see that I had a dog in bed with me.
Here are the basic rules when it comes to being in a medical environment. As long as you are in is not a sterile area, your service dog is permitted. In other words, service dogs will generally not be allowed into an operating room, or into the prep room for surgery. They also will not be allowed into a room where there is equipment that could be harmful to them, such as x-rays or other scanning devices like MRIs or CAT scans. So be prepared for a temporary separation from your dog when you are taken into those settings. For this reason, it’s always best to have a friend or partner with you, so that your service dog can be relinquished to someone they know.
Otherwise, though, your dog should be permitted to be with you. To help ensure that this process goes smoothly, make sure your dog is in a service vest, with all of the appropriate papers in his or her pocket. I also learned it was important to have rabies tags. We hate jingly tags at our house, and so never attach the rabies tags to our dogs’ collars. The first time I brought Ripley to the ER with me, the guard asked for those tags. Luckily, I did have her latest immunization records in her vest. But after that, I put her rabies tags in her vest as well, so that we had those to show if and when needed.
Last November, I had surgery at Kaiser, a hysterectomy, and was in the hospital as an inpatient for two and a half days. I barely remember it, because I was so zonked out on all of the medications they were giving me. What I do remember, though, is this: I woke up at some point, and there was Ripley, asleep at the foot of my bed. I later wrote a poem about that, called Awakening. Sabrina took this photograph; when I told her I was going to write this post, she gave it to me – it was the first time I had seen it. It’s a bit surreal to see a photo of yourself being completely out of it. At the same time, it was so comforting to see that Ripley was there, taking care of me.
The biggest challenge with having a service dog in medical settings is being an advocate for yourself. For the most part, Kaiser has been fantastic, and it hasn’t been an issue. But every once in a while, I run into problems. A few weeks ago, I had some odd issues come up and my doctor wanted me to go in and take a heart stress test. Sabrina, Ripley and I went to the main Kaiser campus, to the EKG lab. A female technician came out to get me. She said Ripley couldn’t come. I didn’t question it, and left Ripley with Sabrina. Had I been alone, I would have been less likely to comply, but Ripley will stay with Sabrina. I went in to do the stress test, and realized, as I did it, that there was absolutely no reason Ripley could not have been in that room with me. I was in there for about 20-25 minutes. When I opened the door, there was Ripley – sitting in this hyper-alert pose, staring at the door, waiting for me. The following week, I had to go back for an EKG. This time, I brought Ripley into the room. As I got up onto the gurney, she leapt up, too. I said to the technician, “Hope this is OK.” He said, “As long as she is still.” And as if she could hear, Ripley froze…tucked right between my legs, with her head on my belly. We got a clear EKG reading, and were done in a few minutes. All good.
The last time I was at the ER, Ripley again immediately jumped up on the gurney, and as we were being wheeled to my room, we heard a chorus of “Oh, look! Isn’t that sweet?” Sweet, yes. Cute, OK. But so much more than that. This is my lifeline, my right arm, my protector. And where I go, she goes. As if to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. I know it’s scary right now – but I’ve got your back.”