Michael Godfrey sits silently, hands folded, next to his freshly made bed on the fourth floor of Omaha's Methodist Hospital.
Performing three hours of daily physical therapy is never easy, but Godfrey has no pain.
“Just waiting to repair.”
The former Navy submariner had a heart attack in early December. He's been in the hospital since. Today marks his 66th day away from home.
Away from his wife of 49 years, Elizabeth. Away from his dogs, Tess and Bear.
If Godfrey, 75, were home right now, he'd be playing Frisbee with Bear, the lonely border collie mix the couple adopted as a puppy from the Humane Society seven years ago.
Bear searched the Godfrey home for days following the heart attack. Now, he often sits with his nose buried in the laundry Elizabeth brings home from the hospital.
The morning was rough for Godfrey, and his nurses took note.
“I was just blah.”
But now he's showered and smiling, patiently awaiting an old friend.
Bear takes his first elevator ride with no problems. Up four floors and down the hallway and then straight into Godfrey's lap. The 55-pound dog shares Godfrey's wheelchair, licking his face for minutes before curling up at his best friend's feet.
“There you go, Bear. That's a good dog.”
Last November, Methodist Hospital began a pet visitation program for patients with a stay longer than seven days.
Many therapists believe patients benefit from seeing pets and animals while in the hospital or assisted-living homes. Experts say interaction with animals, especially your own, has been linked to decreased anxiety and depression and increased socialization and willingness to participate in therapy.
Cindy Sharp, Methodist's therapeutic recreation therapist, said volunteers bring therapy dogs to the rehab floor every Tuesday and every other Sunday. The dogs help motivate patients to participate in therapy, she said. For example, some patients might be more willing to walk — and to walk longer — if they are accompanied by a dog.
With medical research showing the health benefits of pets, more hospitals in the area and around the country are implementing similar programs.
Steven Wengel has seen the benefits of patient-animal interaction firsthand. As chairman of the Psychiatry Department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, he visits four nursing homes weekly, one of which has a live-in dog. He credits a new philosophy of care called the “Eden Alternative” with the rise of pet therapy. The idea is to make long-term care feel more like home by hiring the right staff, planning activities and having animals around.
“I've seen a number of patients improve in the presence of an animal,” Wengel said. “They perk right up and come out of their shell.”
Wengel said pet therapy often has the power to make non-communicative patients start talking again.
Pet therapy provides all patients with the chance to interact with animals, but pet visitation reunites owners with their own dogs and cats. Wengel said seeing your own pets in a time of vulnerability, like a long hospital stay, has even more benefits.
“When friends or family or pets visit you, it helps bridge that gap between hospital and home,” Wengel said. “It gives them hope. It's optimism.”
In Godfrey's case, Sharp said he had been “really, really discouraged” in his recovery.
Sharp said Godfrey's whole attitude changed the day he knew Bear was coming. And since Bear's visit, his nurse said she noticed a significant change in his willingness to participate in therapy. He's more energetic. He's happier.
Godfrey hopes to be home by the end of the month. April marks the couple's 50th anniversary.
The Godfreys, Michael from Long Beach and Elizabeth from Allentown, Penn., moved to Omaha 30 years ago when Michael took over Continental Power, growing the business from 3 to 300 employees. The company later shut down as a subsidiary of Commonwealth Electric.
Both retired, Godfrey's health is their No. 1 concern. And Bear's, too.
Pushing his foot off the chair's stirrups, Godfrey scratches behind Bear's ears with his toes. And smiles.
“Feels good. Feels good.”