Jack Lehman doesn’t remember being in the intensive care unit.
He doesn’t remember lying in bed with a feeding tube or ventilator. Even the memory of his 15th birthday a couple days before he was admitted to Akron Children’s Hospital is hazy.
A sudden onset of Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis (ADEM) left Jack in pain, paralyzed and without memory of the incident. One thing it left him with, though, is a bond he will always remember.
Jack, the son of Jeff and Janie Lehman of Hudson, spent 77 days at Akron’s Children’s Hospital relearning how to balance and walk with the help of therapy dogs that are part of the hospital’s Doggie Brigade program.
On Jack’s birthday on Feb. 20, he began feeling flu-like symptoms. By the time he was admitted to the hospital on Feb. 22, he was too weak to even step out of the car on his own.
ADEM is a rare autoimmune disorder that inflames the brain and spinal cord, causing neurological symptoms like visual loss, weakness and difficulty coordinating voluntary muscle movements. It often follows viral or bacterial infections, but doctors do not know the exact cause of Jack’s case.
Most patients start recovering in a couple of days and see a full recovery in six months. Jack’s case, though, left him relying on machines to live.
“People do die from this illness, and he had a pretty severe version of it,” said Dr. Michael Bigham, a pediatric intensivist at Akron Children’s. “He was pretty doggone sick.”
After spending 35 days on a ventilator and 38 in the ICU, Jack finally began inpatient physical and occupational therapy sessions. The sessions were intense, but he got by with a little help from some furry friends.
The hospital’s Doggie Brigade program is the second oldest volunteer pet program in the country. Established in 1992, the program now hosts more than 50 dogs that go through intense training to get there.
For kids like Jack, it makes the rehabilitation process a lot more fun.
“It’s been amazing,” he said. “I can’t thank the dogs enough.”
Jack’s exercises vary by day. Some may be as simple as walking a dog on a leash, while others are more difficult, like balancing on a rocker while reaching for a treat to pass off to a hungry pooch.
From wheelchair to walker to cane, the dogs have been with Jack every step of the way.
“I’ve seen these dogs work miracles. They have such a motivating presence,” Jack said.
Dogs with disabilities
Jack has spent his therapy sessions working with Chris Witschey, who has volunteered at the hospital five days a week for the past 10 years.
Of all the dogs that volunteer at Akron Children’s, Witschey’s bring a little something special: many of her dogs have handicaps.
Witschey first began volunteering in 2005 with Handsome, a deaf Australian shepherd-Rottweiler mix. She found the kids she worked with not only had fun with Handsome, but also related better with him because of his disability.
“Once I started seeing how kids related to a deaf dog, I started looking for a three-legged one,” Witschey said. “It’s a bit of normality in a scary place.”
She now has seven dogs total, all rescued, four of which she brings to the hospital. One of them is deaf, one is blind, and one has three legs.
Old dog, lots of tricks
Despite their handicaps, Witschey’s dogs know just about every trick in the book. Most of them even understand American Sign Language.
“You can teach them anything, but you can’t teach them disposition,” Witschey said.
Each dog has distinct personalities and “each one is better at different things,” Witschey said.
“Tank loves food more than anyone else on earth. I could feed him treats all day,” Jack said. “Gracie loves to be petted.”
Now that Jack is up and walking with a cane, he will only attend therapy once a week somewhere closer to his Hudson home. By August, he will be up and marching in band camp.
For now, though, Jack is enjoying his final days with the Akron hounds. He is currently helping Witschey teach her newest volunteer dog sign language.
“Dogs are always listening and always understanding,” Jack said. “They make any therapy session better.”
Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or email@example.com.