Pay It Forward: Michael Hurley/Boston Medical Center
by Matthew N. Skoufalos
Michael Hurley/Boston Medical Center. It started with an email.
In December 2012, clinical engineer Michael Hurley got the note that Boston Medical Center was going to begin a therapy dog program. Even without a lick of training, Hurley said, “I knew my boxer would be amazing at it.”
That instinct set in motion a chain of events that catapulted Hurley and his nine-year-old boxer, Dexter, to relative stardom against long odds.
For starters, Dexter had not been trained as a therapy dog, and there was a waiting list for the classes to train him. Secondly, as a breed, boxers are known for their energy and boisterousness; not necessarily for their calm demeanor.
Thirdly, biomedical staff are not typically the first specialists that program staff would have expected to volunteer for this particular type of outreach. In fact, Hurley said, he was told as much from the outset by the director of the program.
“She’s said to me, ‘I didn’t think that a clinical engineer with a boxer was ever going to be accepted into the program,’ ” he said.
Finally, as the third-ever dog in the fledgling therapy program — the first moved out of state, and the second dog had puppies — Dexter was “pretty much on his own,” Hurley said.
“The program was either going to sink or swim,” he explained.
But like countless people in the nearly two years since Hurley and Dexter took on the volunteer work, everybody just fell in love with the boxer. Their first day on the job, April 11, 2013, Dexter and Hurley visited a surgical floor. Hurley remembers thinking, “this is really going to work.”
“And then four days later, a couple of bombs went off at the Boston Marathon,” he said.
Hurley got the call asking whether he and Dexter could come in to visit with patients and their families in the emergency room.
“I had no idea that there were going to be so many people or the emotional condition that they were in,” he said — but, as usual, Dexter shone in the spotlight.
“He’s so lovable that he would instantly become best friends with whoever you introduced him to,” Hurley said. “His new best friend is his next friend.”
“[Then] I realized: this is really working,” he said. “Here I was actually doing something.”
Hurley soon was being asked whether Dexter would be available to greet patients coming out of surgery or intensive care. He brought the dog in for two weeks straight, and in that time, came to know personally a number of the families most intimately connected to the tragedy at the marathon.
Moreover, Hurley said, Dexter was working to help adjust the attitudes of the beleaguered departments that were also struggling with the emotional weight of the mass tragedy. Every day, the two were off to tour a different department.
“I think the marathon really pushed the therapy dog program and Dexter into the light,” Hurley said. “What he did for the patients and the staff when they had unconditional love from this dopey-looking boxer, it helped them.”
Dexter quickly went from accompanying Hurley to work once a week to working almost 14 days straight. His impact on so many people in their hour of need compressed three or four months of training into a very short period, and ultimately preserved the program, Hurley believes.
“If the marathon bomb hadn’t gone off, it would have taken that much longer for the program to take off,” Hurley said. “It was overdrive.”
“[Today] we can almost guarantee that almost any day you could get a visit from a therapy dog if you request it,” he said. “The head of the program says that it’s because of Dexter. It would have taken years for this program to take off [otherwise].”
As Dexter’s owner, Hurley understands his dog’s charm and appeal. But as a medical professional, he’s still somewhat floored by the proportion of the response as compared with the work that hospital staff does to get their patients back to health.
“I love him,” Hurley said. “He’s literally my best friend. But there’s a person attached to the leash, and there are nurses and doctors who helped you more than this dog.”
“It’s amazing still how many people and families still want to take a picture of my dog,” he said. “And the minute it’s taken, it’s texted out.”
At the outset of this journey, Hurley said, he couldn’t have anticipated the demand for how many patients would want a visit from a therapy dog, much less the number who would want to meet and interact with his pet.
Dexter works every Wednesday on his regular therapy rotation, but he is so popular that he’s frequently requested for departmental events and staff meetings.
“I get to bring him everywhere I go now,” Hurley said. “I think he’s been a therapy dog for 14, 15 months, and it still shocks me that there’s a new person or someone that he’s known for weeks, that says, ‘Can I have some Dexter love?’ ”
After 14 years in the hospital, Hurley said, it’s also something of a surprise to become known as “Dexter’s dad.” He tells a story of getting a call to do some repair work and being told by staff that they were waiting for the clinical engineering team.
“I said, ‘I’ve been working here for 14 years fixing your equipment,’ ” Hurley said. “They said, ‘OK, give it a shot.’ ”
“It’s all about perception,” he said. “Who cares who fixes your car or does all your little background work as long as it’s working great? It’s who gives you entertainment and who shows you affection [that] is going to stick in your mind.”