Topic Tip

Stuff that matters

Following her young son’s battle with leukaemia, Lyndsey Uglow knows what families face as a child battles critical illness.

After seeing how dogs can relieve the pain, since 2012 she has devoted herself to sharing canine therapy.

She said: “I knew dogs could make a difference… the moment I watched a child, exhausted by pain… stretch out his hand to touch my dog’s paw.”

With Leo, 2020 Child’s Champion at Crufts, and other dogs and volunteers, Lyndsey provides the Animal Assisted Intervention service at Southampton Children’s Hospital.

Here in exclusive extracts from her book Leo & Friends, Lyndsey tells some of their moving stories.

Felix

It was in October 2015 that the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance delivered Felix to the emergency department at Southampton Hospital.

He wouldn’t have seen the car. It hit him right outside his house.

He had serious head injuries, his legs were smashed and later it was found even his vocal cords were damaged.

Life changed in seconds for the 11-year-old.

Leo and I visited Felix many times as he moved from intensive care to the high-dependency unit and ultimately to his single room on the general ward. In the early days we just visited during Felix’s brief periods of wakefulness so he could feel Leo’s soft fur between his fingers, to give him something comforting to focus on while his head injury started to heal.

Eventually, after months and months, it was time for Felix to start walking outside again and of course this meant passing cars as they drove around the hospital roads.

Felix had walked a good distance inside the hospital but his physiotherapist wanted us to go on his first longer walk, including a stroll outside. I didn’t think we would get far.

Felix was holding Leo’s patient lead, I had the other one in my hand and we chatted about dog things as we walked.

Felix was back on his feet. It took so much concentration for those previously injured legs to walk every step but walk they did, and with Leo as his companion, he walked from the door at one end of the hospital to the entrance at the other. It was a huge distance for Felix.

Pride radiated from Felix’s dad, Kate, his physiotherapist, and of course, me.

Felix looked so pleased with himself.

Leo, the fun companion, the distraction, the bridge to healing, made it fun for all of us. And it worked for Felix because he loved dogs and he especially enjoyed being with Leo.

Zoe
When we first met, the thing I noticed straight away about Zoe was her beautiful red-painted toe and fingernails.

She loved being pampered, she loved ladybirds and she loved Leo.

When we saw her for the last time, the monster, inoperable DIPG – diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma – brain tumour had her firmly and finally in its grasp, closing down her body in its wicked way.

Leo knew his way around Naomi House children’s hospice and swaggered towards Zoe’s bed, where I placed him close to her outstretched hand.

Her eyesight was failing but although she couldn’t see him, clearly her smiles were a signal that she could feel Leo’s warmth and softness as her little fingers slowly ruffled through his coat.

Leo sniffed her fingers and painted toes as he had done many times before.

She could feel the tickle of his breath, which made her so happy and smiley.

For one incredibly special moment, Zoe’s parents and grandparents shared some time stroking Leo, too.

He seemed to calmly know why and how much to give of himself to each person at that moment in that room.

Photographs were taken with Leo to capture the smiles.

Hugs were given and received before we left. Zoé was just eight years old.

She loved dogs – especially Leo.

George
When he met Leo for the first time on the Piam Brown children’s cancer ward George O’Shaughnessy was about to turn two.

It was towards the end of 2014 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia and although he didn’t speak much for his age, seeing Leo and the others made him really excited.

So every visit we were met with lots of pointing, smiling and George encouraging the dogs over to him

Leo quickly became George’s best mate and while the dog enjoyed all the strokes on offer, I took the opportunity to see how George’s mum, Amy, was feeling on those days with long gaps.

I guessed that our journey with George and his family would be long and a little bit rocky because that’s leukaemia, and true enough, over the next five years our visits became more regular.

As soon as he saw a dog on the ward, George headed straight for them. He enjoyed giving lots of fuss and strokes.

George always laughed so hard in that time of his new and difficult normal during a hospital stay, especially when Bella was visiting. His sister loved the dogs too. The children had the biggest smiles on their faces and the family were able to take lots of photos.

When we lost ‘Gorgeous’ George in 2019, there was a huge sadness that came at the end of almost five years of Leo and the rest of the therapy dog team being in the life of this incredibly brave soul.

Amy said to me one day: ‘The dogs bring a sense of normality to a very abnormal and scary situation and so much joy.’

Alice
The first time Alice Razza reached for the warmth of a therapy dog’s fur she was just 11 years old and the fur belonged to Monty. The first day that we were invited onto the paediatric oncology ward at SCH, I heard about Alice Razza or should I say, Alice heard about my therapy dogs, Monty and Leo.

The sad thing was that she was simply too poorly to leave her room. I visited every week, sometimes with Monty and others with Leo. We went to the playroom, where anyone who was well enough was made most welcome and given a little slice of normal life outside the confines of the rooms on the hospital ward.

In those very early days of our hospital visits in 2013, we were not allowed into patients’ rooms on the oncology ward, so there was no way I could get closer to Alice, even though I knew that seeing the dogs was likely to give her a massive lift.

It was a very scary time for her and her parents, Debbie and Rik, who had been landed with the devasting diagnosis of their daughter’s embryonal undifferentiated sarcoma, an extremely rare liver cancer.

The day Alice felt well enough to come and meet us was a big moment for everyone. The smile on Alice’s face lit up the room as she focused on Monty and reached out all of her fi ngers to eagerly sink into his golden coat.

Alice did her very best to make it to our weekly visits. The dogs seemed to be a kind of medicine and nothing like the kind that came from a bottle.

The visits and the cuddles became the focus of smiles and when Alice relapsed in 2016, the cancer ripping into her ribs and lungs, she knew that her time was more precious than ever, so she made plans: ‘… I will make some great memories with everyone I love,’ she told her family.

And that list of loved ones included Leo and his friends who, by then, had become a fun and treasured part of her hospitalisation and ultimately her palliative care at home.

Alice lived some of her short life in the shadow of cancer. It may have shortened her time on this earth, but she didn’t allow it to take the joy out of her days.