Monday, June 5, 2023

You Ol’ Dog, You

I lived the dream of being a mascot.  One of a handful of Scottie Dogs at the Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital in Atlanta.  Scottie walked the hospital offering hugs to one and all.

The costume was that of a Scottish Terrier, covering one head to toe in fur.  Scottie donned a kilt, sash, and a tam-o’-shanter (a cap topped with a pom (orange-size version of thing cheerleaders shake).  Scottie’s short tail poked out of a slit in his kilt.  Everyone loved it when he reached for a little tail wag.

Scottie never spoke…never made a sound.  He was escorted by a helper, a volunteer who did all the talking.  Moving from patient room-to-room, in waiting areas, and even intensive care, the helper used discretion, asking, “Can Scottie come in and give you a hug?”  He was rarely turned down.  Occasionally, even hospital staff requested one.

Though I added my personal flair to the Scottie persona, the star was the dog.  I was just fortunate enough manifest myself in it a few times a month.  I was new in town and thought volunteering might be a way to people…nurses…women.  When I found out about the mascot gig, I couldn’t resist.  I never met any nurses, but there’s no crying in the mascot world.

In a hospital full of Scotties, mine was the coolest.  I had the walk that told you I was the man dog.  The best comment I ever heard was when an employee said, “Scottie’s struttin’.”

He was.  Think the giant, dog version of Tony Manero walking the streets of Brooklyn to Stayin’ Alive.

I tried volunteering for non-costume, speaking jobs, aka normal volunteer positions---assisting in meal distribution, or just spending time with kids.  However, I learned too much about the patients. Though rule number one was not asking anyone what was wrong.  Usually, a parent told you, or worse, the patient was bald.  No one ever told Scottie, or at least he never heard.  He only understood hugs.

It was hard enough when you visited a bald child, or a patient who stayed so long, their room’s d├ęcor was like their room at home.  The four-year-old girl who knew Scottie so well that when I arrived on her floor, she ran the length of the hallway to greet me.  I didn’t need to know why she was a repeat customer.  I needed to drop to my knees and hold my arms to gather her leaping embrace.  She hugged me like a long, lost love returning from war.  Led me by the hand to her room, she presented Scottie with a note written on her Hello Kitty stationary.

“I love you, Scotty Dog. Love, Heidi.” 



Right back at you, Heidi.

Everything about it was priceless, but that mom wrote the note in light pencil and she traced over it with a red pencil.  Perfect.  It was a special project that had her so excited she couldn’t stay in her room, let alone her bed.  You’re damn right I have that framed.

When the hospital asked me why I wanted to volunteer, I said, “There’s nothing worse than a sick child.”  Goes without saying.

The courage I witnessed: the mom who nightly coaxes sounds out of her son, whose head-on collision with a soccer goal means he’ll likely never speak again; the husband embracing his wife, out-of-her-mind crying outside an ER room; a dad working at some normalcy by dad-joking with his bald, teenage daughter.

For Scottie, anyone visiting the patient was fair game.  When the helper got the OK, Scottie entered the room and gave the patient a nice, careful hug.  Then came siblings and parents.  Especially dad.  Scottie loved hugging dads.  Dads weren’t always so sure, especially when Scottie towers over him at nearly seven feet tall.  “You’re a lot taller than the last time I hugged you.” one dad said in my ear.  The trepidation of dad about to be hugged by another man (in a dog costume) just made this Scottie’s hug linger.  The child’s giggle that followed was a worried parent’s best medicine.

Believe it or not, the intensive care waiting room was a favorite place.  Parents were always with their child, so this was a place for relatives and friends.  Once Scottie visited a full room.  Must have given out 50 hugs, because no one declines this Scottie!  Half way through we came across some rather interesting characters.  The kind you imagine having a moonshine business in the Appalachians.  It didn’t help that the man in overalls had a spider web tattoo on his scalp.  I was leery, but Scottie’s realization was immediate.  They were visiting a child in the hospital, not a dive bar.  When it was his turn for a hug, Spiderman stood up, held out his arms and said, “Come here, you ol’ dog, you.”  He hugged Scottie dog off the ground.

Another visit to the same waiting room couldn’t have been more different, or more fun.  Maybe 10 people.  One man sat in a far corner, no one within 25 feet.  Head down in the newspaper the whole time, ignoring the commotion.  Scottie responded by sitting a few seats away, crossing his leg, and perusing the business section.  Without looking up from his paper, the man said, “I suppose you want a hug, huh?”  Scottie nodded. 

Hug achieved.

My favorite Scottie was with a mother holding her screaming baby.  I mean screaming.  Inconsolable, hysterical crying of a one-year-old.  The younger the patient, the slower Scottie moved.  In this case, Scottie didn’t move.  He just held out my paw and let mom bring the baby over.  The baby’s eyes got huge and mom guided his hand to touch the furry paw with calls of “puppy…puppy”.  His mesmerized look said, “What---are---you?”  However, there was silence.

As we departed, the exasperated mom told the helper, “Thank you.  That’s the first time he stopped crying all day.”

Bearing silent witness to the typical family doing their best to tolerate the unbearable, while Scottie did his best to briefly lighten their load.