Animals and Healing
Pets are more than just companions. They can help you heal—and even renew your faith.
People tell me I’ve always been a shy person. They also tell me I used to manage a medical office in southern California and bicycle long distances in my spare time. They say I was fond of dogs, was an accomplished woodworker, went hiking and white-water rafting, and enjoyed life as a single woman with a close circle of friends. They tell me I grew up the oldest of 10 children in a small Pennsylvania town and settled in California where the weather was great for bike riding. They tell me I had a strong faith.
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I say people tell me these things because I wouldn’t know myself. In fact, without the memories of my friends and family I wouldn’t know a thing about the first two-thirds of my life. That’s because right after my fiftieth birthday I suffered a severe head injury in a bicycle accident and lost all of my memory. I mean all. I awoke from a coma unable to walk, talk or eat. I had to relearn those things. What I couldn’t relearn was my self. Who was I? What did I like, dislike? Why was I here? I couldn’t answer those questions. I needed help. And for several long years it seemed that help might never come.
I don’t remember the accident but I do have newspaper articles and a few photographs taken by a bystander. It was June in the small town of Cortez, Colorado. For my fiftieth birthday I’d decided to take several weeks and bicycle solo across the country to Downingtown, Pennsylvania, where I was born. I spent two years training and sometimes rode 150 miles on weekend charity bike rides. I was passing through Cortez on U.S. Route 160 when a car parked on the shoulder suddenly veered into traffic and was struck by a van. Both vehicles spun across the road. The car hit me, throwing me from my bike and straight into the windshield of the van. Photos show the car smashed and the van plunged into a ditch. My bicycle lies bent in a patch of roadside grass.
I was flown to a trauma hospital about 50 miles away, then to another hospital in Pasadena, closer to home. I was in the hospital five weeks. My right knee was battered, I had trouble moving my left side and blood pooled dangerously between my brain and my skull. Friends and family visited but I recognized no one.
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I was transferred to a rehabilitation center where I began to relearn all the basic skills I’d lost. I took tentative first steps, learned how to use a spoon and fork, worked on simple speech and reading, and tried to remember the names of all the people who kept coming to my room swearing that they knew me and loved me. I picked up my Bible again and gradually pieced together the faith that had once been second nature.
It wasn’t until I returned home two months later that I finally grasped what had happened to me. I was under near constant supervision by therapists, friends and family. One morning I happened to be by myself. I was at the kitchen sink when all of a sudden I asked myself why I wasn’t at work. Maybe some key synapses in my brain healed, or maybe some trickle of memory bubbled up. Whatever it was, I knew something was wrong. What’s going on? I thought. I had enough presence of mind to call Gayle Taylor, one of my therapists. Gayle told me to stay put, she’d be there in 20 minutes. When she arrived we sat down and she told me all about the accident. I bombarded her with questions. She told me about my job. The bike rides. The rafting. Friends. Family. And that’s all gone now.
Before she left Gayle said, “Mary, I know how hard this is. If you start feeling depressed, if you think about not wanting to live like this anymore, promise you’ll call me. Okay?”
I promised, but in the weeks that followed I almost wished I hadn’t. My short-term memory was rapidly improving. Not enough to recapture my former life but enough to make me ever more aware of what I’d lost. Everything in my house—T-shirts from charity rides, rafting and hiking photos, woodworking equipment—was a haunting remnant of a vanished life. I could ride a bike and drive but I was still working on my speech and balance. Talking with strangers was excruciating. No way could I go back to work. I didn’t even want to venture outside my own house. I felt useless. The Bible tells us God knows every one of us intimately, down to each hair on our heads. Well, there wasn’t much of me to know.