It's 4 a.m. when I awake with a sharp pain in my lower abdomen. I awkwardly make my way downstairs to do something about it, though I’m not sure what to do. As I fumble for some Tums in the kitchen, a strange sensation of heat and clamminess engulfs my entire body.
I pace back and forth in the kitchen, trying to make sense of this sudden, unfamiliar pain. I put my fingers on my neck to feel for a pulse. I'm so numb and disoriented that I have trouble finding one.
What the heck is happening? Am I dying? Am I panicking? Should I just go back to bed? I'm the healthiest 47-year-old I know. This can't be serious.
And yet it sure feels serious.
Suddenly a wave of nausea overtakes me, and I rush to the bathroom. Nothing comes up. I lay on the cold tile trying to find a comfortable position. Writhing on the floor, I decide what I really need to do is rouse my sleeping husband and get him to take me to the ER.
As I try to get myself together to do this, I hear a dull thump on the floor just behind my head.
I roll over for a look. Chilly, my three-year-old Lab mix (he’s Lab-radorable), has dropped one of his favorite toys on the floor, just inches from my head. Minutes before, I left him sound asleep in bed, next to my husband. Now he's standing over me with a look that says, “Let’s play! You’ll feel better!”
How sweet. Chilly knows something's wrong. My panic subsides long enough for me to smile, grab his head and give him a quick ear rub.
(MORE: The 10 Best Pet Companions to Have at Your Side)
Man, Woman and Dog
I manage to get up, and slowly make my way up the stairs. Fear takes a temporary backseat to a determination to get help for myself. My husband, Paul, gets dressed in record time, and I flinch as he helps me into his SUV.
Chilly follows us out to the driveway. Confusion registering on his face, he wants to come with us, and he resists Paul's attempts to coax him back into the house. Chilly knows that something out of the ordinary is happening. Finally he goes inside, no waggle in his tail.
The next four hours are a hospital blur. I'm admitted, vitals checked, saline drip stuck in my arm. Nurses who look like doctors come and go, plying me with questions. The consensus seems to be diverticulitis — but a CT scan is needed to confirm. I'm offered Darvocet for the pain, but I decline. I turn to Paul and snap, “I'm too young for diverticulitis!”
After the scan, I'm told it will take at least an hour for the radiologist to read it, so I try to doze in my hospital bed. Yet all I can think about is Chilly: Is he worried? Did he go back to sleep? I'm going to play tug with him when I get home. I'll take him for a walk too — so he knows I'm okay.
I'm comforted the memory of his earlier rush to my side and playful expression. I feel badly about his sad face in the driveway as we rushed to leave for the ER.
(MORE: The Healing Power of Pet Therapy)
Pets Are Critical to Healing
If you have a pet, you know the many different ways they make you happy. But that’s not all they give us. Decades of scientific research have shown that pets are beneficial to our health too.
An early study, from the 1980s, found that heart attack patients who had pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another study revealed that simply petting a dog or cat could reduce a person’s blood pressure. Since then, science has shown that animals’ presence in our lives can do almost everything from reduce anxiety and cholesterol to help autistic children.
Today there’s a growing body of science that gets at the underpinnings of those older studies by exploring the biochemical pathways through which these healings occur. Studies at the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction, for example, are researching how animals increase oxytocin levels in humans.
Oxytocin, sometimes called the “feel-good hormone," is what helps us connect with other beings. It also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in social recognition and bonding and possibly the formation of trust and generosity between people and, they’re learning, pets.
But this hormonal connection might bestow longer-term health benefits as well. "Oxytocin has some powerful effects on the body's ability to be in a state of readiness to heal, and also to grow new cells,” according to Rebecca Johnson, head nurse at the research center.
So as I lay in the hospital bed awaiting my CT results and thinking about Chilly, I wonder if my eagerness to feel better and get back home to him is at least in part due to oxytocin.
The Road to Recovery
The radiology report finally comes back: There are some “masses of concern” in my lower abdomen. "Probably just fibrous tissues," the ER doctor says. But the look on her face belies her calm demeanor. I'm told to call my Ob-Gyn later today and advised that I'll probably need an MRI or ultrasound for a better look. "Good luck," she says as she leaves my room.
When Paul returns to my room, I tell him about the report, and we quickly hatch a plan to get to the bottom of this and move on. At 10 a.m. we head home.
I can hardly wait to see Chilly and take him for that walk. Good thing I turned down the Darvocet — it would have spoiled our walk, which I'm sure I’d been looking forward to at least as much as he was.
Six long days pass before my follow-up ultrasound. “Benign uterine myoma — fibroids,” Dr. Benson pronounces after reviewing the new scan and reports. “It’s nothing to worry about. You just have to decide what you want to do about it.”
She reviews my options: surgical removal, uterine artery embolization and a few others. I choose removal — after all, one is the size of a navel orange and is sure to cause me pain again.
Apparently 20 percent of women 30 to 50 experience these unwanted masses. I almost feel silly that I was so worried. But I also feel fortunate that my little scare was only that.
But to me, there’s a real up side to the experience. I now have felt firsthand the very thing that I’ve been writing and speaking about for the past year: just how critical pets are to our healing.
Animal companions sense our fears and lift our spirits and remind us that those little things we take for granted, like playing ball with the dog or curling up on the sofa with the cat, can be the most healing of all.
How has your pet helped you heal from an illness or injury? We'd like to hear.
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