Martha Irvine

CHICAGO: Rob Garofalo was devastated. He’d built his medical and research career on helping young AIDS patients. Then he learned that he, too, was HIV-positive. The news came after he’d already survived kidney cancer and a breakup with his longtime partner.

Try as he might, the doctor could not heal himself, at least not emotionally.

“I couldn’t afford myself the same compassion that I’d spent a career teaching other people to have,” said Garofalo, who heads the adolescent medicine division at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At first, he told almost no one about his HIV status — not even his own elderly mother, who sensed that her son was struggling mightily during a Christmas visit in 2010.

“You can tell me that everything is OK, but it’s not,” she said at the end of his trip to his native New Jersey.

Garofalo recalls crying on much of the flight home to Chicago in a catharsis that led him to an unexpected decision, one that helped him in ways no human could and ultimately led him to a new role in the HIV community.

He got a dog.

It was a little Yorkshire terrier he named Fred. And everything changed.

“I had this little bundle of, like, pure joy,” Garofalo said. “He made me re-engage with the world.”

The doctor, who’s helped save many an AIDS patient, knows it sounds a little crazy that the companionship and simple needs of a pet could help him cope with his disease and pull him out of depression.

“But I’m not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life,” said Garofalo, who’d considered suicide after his HIV diagnosis.

Garofalo began a project called When Dogs Heal, with the help of a dog photographer named Jesse Freidin and a Chicago-based writer named Zach Stafford. It tells the stories of HIV-positive people and their dogs in an exhibit launching in Chicago on Tuesday, which is World AIDS Day, and also in New York City two days later.

Participants whose images are in the show include a young mother from Los Angeles who was born with HIV, a Chicago man who tested positive after he was gang raped, and an HIV-positive man in San Francisco who quit dealing drugs so he could provide a more stable life for himself and his newly adopted dog.