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Help for those who comfort creatures

By Bella English
April 8, 2012
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WESTWOOD - The Rev. Eliza Blanchard asked the dozen women seated in a circle on the floor what symptoms they had experienced because of “compassion fatigue.’’ The women, all caregivers for the sick or dying, listed their teeth-grinding, neck pain, rapid heartbeat, insomnia. One woman said, “Sometimes, I forget to breathe.’’

The others nodded in agreement, and Blanchard added a few more. “You have trouble getting up in the morning. The tank is empty. You don’t care about things you used to care about.’’

As they sat on pillows and blankets, she led them through breathing and yoga exercises. They were in the meditation room of The Center at Westwoods, a nonprofit holistic and spiritual center on 70 pastoral acres in Westwood.

The women’s patients are chronically or terminally ill animals, some of them paralyzed, some elderly, some young. These caregivers are veterinarians, vet technicians, vet tech students, and a pet owner or two.

“Refill the Well’’ is a one-night workshop given by Blanchard, a Unitarian Universalist minister who left the regular ministry because she heard another calling: the voices of animals. Blanchard ministers to animals and their humans through pet loss circles, an All Creatures worship service, and an “Animals Are Us’’ class on human-animal relationships. She is also the chaplain of New England Pet Hospice and visits sick and dying animals and their owners.

At the top of her website, www.animalcarerev.com, Blanchard once posted a quote from writer Anatole France: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.’’ Her own animal love is a Maltese-Yorkshire terrier mix named Maisie. Blanchard’s son is allergic to animal fur, so she found a breed that is hypo-allergenic.

In her Westwood workshop, Blanchard noted that the women’s jobs are unusually stressful because animals cannot speak for themselves, so there is a tendency to over-empathize. “The Buddha said to be awake to suffering, but you don’t need to take it on yourself. Obviously, you are going to do your job, do what you can do, but the rest you have to give up to the universe,’’ she said.

After witnessing suffering and pain, the caregivers can use meditation as a healthy release; twice a day, for at least 10 minutes, they should practice it, Blanchard said. If they work in a group, she suggests a short healing circle with co-workers.

One of the vet tech students told the group that she loves working with dogs but finds it very stressful. “I’m worried about them,’’ she said.

Blanchard reminded them that their jobs are difficult “because you give care, you don’t take care.’’ On airplanes, the flight attendants tell passengers to don their own oxygen masks before helping their children with theirs. “You can’t help anyone if you don’t help yourself first,’’ she said. “You will burn yourself out, so put your oxygen mask on.’’

Dr. Beth Innis, a house-call vet from Medford, sees older pets at the end of their lives. “It’s so rewarding and very difficult,’’ she said. “I’m here to learn how to take care of myself so I can continue to do what I’m doing forever and ever, because I love it.’’

The women were instructed to put some of their load down. “You can’t carry it forever,’’ said Blanchard. “You need to put it aside, to rest.’’ She told them to eat mindfully and slowly, and to laugh out loud, either at something funny, or for no reason at all. The women all tried the latter, and cracked up at one another.

Blanchard led the group in a silent, slow, “mindful walk’’ around the circle. She passed out beads and the women strung them together for a sort of “worry bead’’ rosary to reach for when needed. She uses her own string of beads - certain beads for family, some for friends, a rose quartz for peace, some for the world, for work, for self, and finally, a heart bead - to send out a healing thought or prayer.

“Then, let it go,’’ she said.

Kim Karolides is a veterinary technician from Medway who also teaches in the vet tech program at Mount Ida College in Newton. She deals with a lot of beloved, ill pets. Her own beloved dog, a 14-year-old yellow Lab named Butterbear, died nearly a year ago. “I had him before my husband,’’ said Karolides.

She has seen, close up, the close bond between people and their dogs. “I think it’s because we’ve never argued with them, they don’t disappoint you, and they make us laugh. As they get older, they become more perfect, and then they die. I don’t know many people like that.’’

Marcy Glatky of Concord is taking care of her 14-year-old rescue dog, Simba. He has arthritis and can’t move well, so Glatky has to bring everything to him, and help him get outside. “It’s hard for me to calm myself when he’s not feeling so good,’’ she said. “It’s nice to be here around other people who are going through the same thing, or understand, so I don’t feel so alone.’’

Glatky also has another dog and four cats, all rescue, to take care of. Her husband, she said, is better than she is at handling stress. “He doesn’t bring it home,’’ she said.

What does he do?

“He’s an emergency room doctor at Beth Israel Hospital.’’

Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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