Wellness Wednesday: Why Being a Friend is Good for your Health

There’s a new bounce in my step. Part of the feeling comes from some good news: A cyst that cropped up on my pancreas has disappeared. Good. Moving on.

But most of the bounce in my step comes from a new energy. Maybe it’s that I’m swimming again. Or maybe it’s that I’m spending more time with a good friend.

Supporting my friend

My dear friend and neighbor C. took swimming classes this summer, taking the plunge at the urging of her husband to overcome a life-long fear of the water. In just three weeks, she progressed from a panicked doggie paddle to this, which I recorded when I got up earlier than usual to attend her graduation day swim. (Yes, I do testament to the 50’s with my exclamations of ”Holy mackerel!” Another one I seem to use a lot is “Phooey.”)

C swimming class graduation day!

C invited me to help her continue to practice her newfound skill by joining her at our community pool a few mornings a week before her work day.

It was a big ask: being fully retired, I’ve gotten very accustomed to sleeping in, waking slowly over breakfast and the newspaper, and doing some writing before getting out the door for a two-mile walk with our dog.

But C. had made so much progress — not just the crawl, but backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke! — that I simply couldn’t say no. Swimming alone is not a good idea — although I usually do water exercise once or twice a week, it has been a long time since I’ve done any serious swimming for lack of company.

So, I set my alarm, organized breakfast and the dog, and started showing up.

Helping a friend got me healthier

That was a month ago. Three mornings a week, I am up early, knowing that C. is doing the same, and we meet at our community pool. We catch up and goggle up, and then we’re in the water.

I have watched C continue to develop her new skill. As her arms and legs settle into their rhythm, she is finding freedom in the water and emerges into the warming air with a huge smile on her face. Swimming is a joyful exploration.

My old swimming routine was just waiting for me. The slow ten lengths of freestyle, my body gradually releasing the night’s tension. The mix-up of breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke, and a sort-of butterfly, the variety entertaining my mind and challenging my body. The hypnotic burble of breath and bubble. The final laps bring me home, panting.

We stretch and talk, or talk and stretch. And talk some more on the walk back home. Then we each disappear into the requirements of the day, knowing that, in a day or two, we’ll do this all again.

My friend’s company was just the support I needed to reclaim an old habit. And swimming has become another vehicle though which our friendship blossoms.

Friendship and exercise, what a great combination

The happy buzz of endorphins percolates through my body all day long. I feel stronger, more connected, and more committed to my health. And grateful for a friend’s support.

I thought I was doing her a favor, when in fact it was I who received the blessing.

C and me in the pool
C and me in the pool

Wellness Wednesday: How Am I a One-in-a -Million Outcome?

In her opinion column in the Sunday New York Times, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas writes about unexpected ICU turn-arounds, when the grim repetition of bad news is trumped by unanticipated good news:

… the one in a million outcomes, the patients who surprise and humble us.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

I am one of those patients. I dodged death on May 5, 2019, when I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm while on vacation in Amsterdam, barely making it into the ER as my heart stopped. I dodged it again after sailing through surgery a day later, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, as my organs took turns failing. Somehow, I survived.

As tempting as it is to focus only on life or death in the ICU, there is a vast world between survival and true recovery.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

And here I sit in the patio of our home in South Florida two years and two months later, on this Independence Day, celebrating that rarest of miracles, full recovery. What made the difference? Being lucky enough to be taken to OLVG Hospital, for starters, where the staff were skilled, compassionate, and supportive. Being strong to start with. Trained by my early years to make the best out of any situation. And laughter.

Skill and compassion

The talented team of English-speaking doctors and nurses at OLVG hospital acted fast to stop the hemorrhage and never gave up as my body crashed, and they were also compassionate human beings that supported me and my exhausted family through those awful ICU weeks.

Support

My dear friend Anne, one of the nurses who most encouraged me in the weeks after my surgery, was so matter of fact about the inevitability of my complete recovery, so relaxed about my progress, that I never once doubted that I’d make it. My physiotherapist, Gemma, was sure I’d walk out of there. And I did.

Anne and her colleagues on 7A, OLVG Hospital, sent me this greeting a few weeks back. They are still in my corner.

Strength

It helped tremendously that I was physically fit. I danced in my 20s, developed a lifetime jogging habit, and taught exercise for the five years preceding that fateful trip. Six weeks of being motionless in the ICU sapped me of a quarter of my weight and the ability to move, but I had a surplus muscle and a love of moving to draw on. Eventually, it felt familiar. Then, good. Then, great.

Determination

I’ve never been particularly ambitious, but I’m very good at making the most of whatever circumstances I find myself in. I give credit to my upbringing in the Foreign Service. Learning how to chew and swallow again took days. Learning how to walk again took months. Full recovery took two years, and I continue to book an hour of my morning, every morning, to getting stronger every day.

Laughter

My love of a good community laugh has carried me over many a hurdle. I think I have to thank my Dad for that gene in my DNA, along with my passion for writing and my love of singing.

Words matter — a lot. Choose them carefully. Humor and wit matter — a lot. And puns are always good. And, music matters — sing it, play it, listen to it.

My sister, Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett, eulogizing our father, Robert C. Amerson in 2006

Lying inert in my ICU bed, unable to move and fighting for my life, I broke out into song — “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. Although I don’t remember much of those weeks, I clearly recall hearing an ICU alarm marking that iconic beat — “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) — and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to pick up the tune, just as I did many times while teaching exercise with this fun music.

Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest). Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest).Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest)

Barbara Ann, by Fred Fassert, recorded by The Beach Boys in 1965

My sister and my daughter (who had flown in from the States) smiled at my husband. “That’s her,” my sister said, and joined in with the harmony. Within moments, my family and nearby nurses and doctors added their voices, all of them laughing.

Starting my next book

All of which has got me ready to begin the book about all this. Working title: “Singing in the ICU: How A Community of Strangers Saved My Life.” Or something along those lines, witty and musical and wordy as Dad would have wanted.

Stay tuned!

My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956
My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956

Family Friday: How to Introduce Your Pandemic Pup to a New Dog

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that we rescued a black Lab just before the pandemic hit last year. Kumba was sweet, rail thin, and nervous-aggressive around other dogs. We had just one session with trainer Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training to begin helping Kumba to get accustomed to another dog before we locked down into quarantine.

Kumba looking in, Pancho looking out ….

As Alison said in a recent post of ours, social distancing has helped dogs be around other dogs without being forced into being buddies. Nose to nose greetings between leashed dogs sounds like a good idea to humans but is a recipe for disaster to our canine companions. Over the past 15 months, Kumba has become more relaxed around other dogs and in fact has several puppy friends in our neighborhood.

The pandemic has done wonders for dog socialization, exposing them to different things without requiring participation.

Alison Chambers, Complete Canine Training

Three weeks ago, we put Kumba’s readiness to be around another dog to a critical test when our daughter’s Lab, Pancho, came for a two-week stay. It was touch and go for a couple of days, but, thanks to Alison‘s guidance, Kumba’s resilience, and Pancho’s excellent guest manners, the dogs figured out how to share us, our home, walks, and even … (I am not suggesting this, but it was something that happened organically along the end of Week One) drinking out of each other’s water bowls.

At Alison’s recommendation, we introduced them in neutral territory during a walk at a gradually reducing distance, then sat with them in our backyard, then entered a toy-free home environment while constantly monitoring and trying not to panic when either dog bark-snarled to assert his space. That final point is the most difficult.

Have them meet in neutral territory

Alison Chambers
Success means smelling the same thing at the same time!

Rather than have Pancho come charging to the house, Alison suggested we have the dogs see each other outside. We walked out with Kumba and Pancho was across the street on the opposite sidewalk. Oh, a dog. Okay. Check.

Take a parallel walk

Alison Chambers

Keeping them at a distance from each other, with my daughter holding Pancho’s leash and me holding Kumba’s, we did a leisurely stroll around our lake, territory that’s familiar to each of them but which is not either one’s turf. We gradually reduced the distance between them until we were on the same sidewalk and slightly off sides. Kumba was pretty nonchalant and Pancho was totally fine. Check.

Pancho looking over his shoulder

Pancho first, leashes off, be in the backyard.

Alison Chambers

How do you fake relaxing in the backyard while every nerve in your body is attuned to what your dog may or may not do to your other dog? This was a more challenging process than I had expected, in large measure because we were on the dogs’ timetable. We also realized that our reactions could be more alarming than the dogs’ reactions to each other. It took a while, but Kumba and Pancho were both eventually able to lie down and even close their eyes. Check.

Clear toys, beds, bowls before you go indoors.

Alison Chambers

Cleared out the house’s public area, leaving the (back) family room and the (front) living room as big open neutral territories. Pancho hung out in the front room while Kumba was in the back. The kitchen in between became the demilitarized zone, where both dogs could amiably convene in case the person chopping up the food drop something on the floor. They both know that happens all the time. They say food brings people together, same for dogs!

Keep the calm. Dogs and their humans need breaks.

Alison Chambers

We initially kept the boys in separate bedrooms at night and if they were in the house without us, but otherwise they gradually figured out how to coexist together. We praised good behavior— I’m pretty sure lots of treats were dispensed by the other human in the house—and the dogs self-corrected when they stepped over each other’s borders. There’s nothing ambiguous about Pancho’s “hey, get your nose outa my face” bark.


They may never be friends, but our two good dogs co-habited very well. They’ve both spent a lot more time asleep this week!

Wow Kumba!!! What big strides you make!! 😎😎

Alison Chambers

Family Friday: From Stray to Therapy Dog

A 2019 article in the Washington Post by reporter Karen Brulliard posits that dogs’ success is love-based. You know that gooey feeling you get when you gaze into your honey’s eyes and them eyes gaze back at you? That’s the love hormone, oxytocin, and it spikes in people and their dogs when the contact is human-canine. 

I’d like to tell you about a friend of mine, Julie, and her golden retriever, Levi. To say that they fill each other’s hearts is an understatement. How they found each other and what they are doing together make an amazing story.

Abandoned

Levi before he left Turkey (Contributed by Julie)

Some years back, it was fashionable in Turkey to own a golden retriever puppy. The fad faded and the puppies grew up, and soon there were dozens of grown goldens abandoned and running loose in and around Istanbul. Levi was one of these abandoned dogs, fending for himself in the forest.

Rescued

Levi he was rescued by Turkish women who had taken it upon themselves to save these dogs. Partnering with Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue (EGRR) and other similar organizations, they helped Levi and 18 other “Turkey Dogs” access a new life in the United States. He was thin under his matted coat, and wary of humans.

Fostered

Julie was part of the rescue effort and became Levi’s foster mother. It didn’t take long for her to realize she couldn’t part with him, so she and her husband became Levi’s permanent family. He was their fourth golden retriever.

It wasn’t an easy decision to live with. Levi had been fending for himself for so long that he did not trust humans. He was guarded and elusive, even agressive.

He was a broken dog.

Julie Iribarren

Trained and Certified for Therapy

But Julie would not give up on Levi. Working closely with her vet, Dale Porcher at Shores Animal Clinic, and her trainer, Jamie Diaz at Dynamite Dog Training, Julie helped Levi feel safe and secure. In the process, she gave her dog his life back.

The trainer had suggested that Levi would be a good therapy dog, and another volunteer with Everglades Golden Retriever Rescue had certified her dog through the national Alliance of Therapy Dogs. Julie and Levi enrolled in the Alliance training program and diligently followed the curriculum, getting Levi used to being in busy public spaces while remaining calm and well-behaved. They passed with flying colors and became a Pet Therapy Team.

Animal Reading Friends (ARF)

The retired teacher knew where she and Levi needed to be: with children. She knew that children who struggled with reading (out loud, in class) were teased by their classmates, and that the resulty anxiety made reading an even tougher challenge. If she could find a way for children to read to her dog, one-on-one, she knew that the calming effect of stroking now laid-back Levi would give these kids the security and confidence to work through the reading challenge.

A Palm Beach County Library branch manager provided the missing link: a new program, Animal Reading Friends (ARF), through which children could have weekly private reading dates with Levi and Julie.

Julie and Levi have become the ARF ambassadors.

Julie and Levi have loads of small fans and parents who see their reluctant children develop a love of reading; library patrons who politely ask to pet Levi as he makes his way to the Children’s area; and librarians, who see Julie’s love and dedication in the support, compassion, and caring spirit she shows each child.

So, yes, love abounds. We give it, we get it, we need it. It makes the world go ’round. When a shell of a dog is given a chance to live abundantly, he flowers. As does his proud new mama.