You might say that 13-year-old Erika Daniels has a serious case of puppy love.
“I looove dogs,” she gushes.
Of course, her favorite four-legged friend is her own dog, an adorable cocker spaniel named Patches. But the La Verne eighth grader also has a special place in her heart for other dogs—17 of them, to be exact.
Those dogs (and their human owners) are part of the Amerman Family Foundation Dog Therapy Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Last summer, they brought Erika and her family a lot of comfort and joy during her five-week hospital stay—and even helped her learn to walk again.
A life-threatening infection
At the start of last June, Erika and her family had no idea that they’d be spending most of the summer at CHLA. Erika, then 12, had always been healthy, and the family was looking forward to a Fourth of July trip to Palm Springs.
But after school let out, Erika began having headaches. Her mom made a doctor appointment, but three days before the appointment, Erika started throwing up. By that night, she was lethargic and “loopy,” calling Gatorade “cookies and cream” and calling her dad “Mom.”
Alarmed, her parents, Cris and Rodney Daniels, rushed Erika to CHLA. The diagnosis? Erika had developed a life-threatening infection in her brain from an unrecognized sinus infection, causing her to have a stroke.
“She had been perfectly healthy two days before,” Rodney says, “and all of a sudden we didn’t know whether she was going to live.”
As Erika rapidly deteriorated, a team of CHLA surgeons, including neurosurgeon Erin Kiehna, MD, performed emergency brain and sinus surgery on Erika to drain and wash out the infection. But the infection had done its damage: When Erika woke up, she was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak.
Bruno walks in
At first, doctors weren’t sure how much movement and speech Erika would recover, and she had several seizures. But on Father’s Day, she finally spoke—slurring the word “hi” when her dad walked in the room. Later that day, she began to move her right side. There was hope.
Still, Erika faced a tough road of rehabilitation. During her first in-room therapy session, “I was pretty mad,” she admits. “I didn’t want to do it.”
Then, CHLA therapy dog Bruno ambled into her room. Immediately, everything changed. Her face lit up in a smile, and with the therapists’ help, she sat on a bench and practiced reaching and bending—motivated to pet the sweet boxer/pit bull mix with both hands.
“He was so cute!” Erika explains.
The pair became fast friends, but he wasn’t her only new buddy. Many dogs regularly took part in her therapy on CHLA’s inpatient rehabilitation unit—from pint-sized pups to a 200-pound Newfoundland named Bonner. Step by step, these tail-wagging volunteers helped rebuild her strength—and her spirits. In all, she befriended 17 therapy dogs.
“She’d be in pain, and a dog would come and jump on the bed with her,” her mom remembers. “And literally the pain was out the window, and she was in heaven. That’s what this program did for her. I don’t know if she would have had the strength to recover the way she did without those dogs.”
Erika’s rapid recovery amazed everyone, including her doctors, and on July 17—36 days after she’d arrived at CHLA—she went home, walking out of the hospital with the aid of a walking belt.
In the car outside, an old friend was eagerly waiting: her cocker spaniel, Patches.
It was a sweet reunion. Over the next few weeks, Erika continued outpatient therapy, and today, she’s made a full recovery. The spirited teen and “A” student is back in school and hanging out with her friends—building mansions in the Minecraft video game, painting her nails in hundreds of different designs and of course, playing with Patches.
“We can’t thank Children’s Hospital enough for what they did for us,” says Cris. “Every person we came across was amazing. There was always a comforting hand.”
And plenty of comforting paws, too.