Hubert Rawls, 48, first met Archie this past April, after Rawls’ nurse at Durham’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center suggested they get together.
Archie and Rawls hit it off that day, in a display of what could be described as bonding in its purest form: Archie, the center’s first therapy cat, took a nap on Rawls’ bed.
Is this medicine?
“It’s medicine for anybody,” said Jessica Cornett, 29, recreation therapist at the center. “Animals bring out something that maybe a doctor can’t.”
Cornett, whose work with the VA has always included pet therapy, believes animals like Archie can stir a veteran’s memories from childhood, as well as provide a medium for building – and re-building – rapport with the civilian world.
Archie’s handler and owner is Amanda Hewitt, 25, of Raleigh. Archie entered Hewitt’s life seven years ago when he followed her home from walking the dog. He had been neutered and declawed by a previous owner.
“He was a ditch kitty,” Hewitt said.
A ditch kitty with an easygoing disposition toward strangers that reminded Hewitt of the therapy dogs that had helped her late grandmother cope with dementia. In her honor, Hewitt decided to volunteer with Archie as a registered animal therapy team. The cat travels on a leash, not unlike a therapy dog.
“The leash came before animal therapy,” Hewitt said. “He did not take to a crate.”
The pair’s first deployment was a high school classroom for students with intellectual disabilities. When that teacher got another job, Hewitt began looking for other opportunities to share Archie. It happened to be the same time that Cornett was seeking more animal-assisted therapy volunteers for the medical center.
“It’s very rare to find someone willing to come in with their cat,” Cornett said.
It is Archie’s third visit to the Medical Center, and when Hewitt hoists Archie onto Rawls’ bedside, the cat settles in immediately. Rawls coughs softly, the sound reduced to a muted click by the breathing tube in his throat, which renders him speechless. Archie and Rawls looked at each other. Both faces were inscrutable.
Rawls, who is in long-term care at the center, communicates via a computer screen keypad which responds to his eye movements. With Archie’s green eyes watching, Rawls directs the spelling of a message, letter by letter. The process is slow.
HAD TWO CATS WHEN I WAS AN ADULT
TIGER AND DASHA
Rawls grew up on a farm near Washington, N.C., and served in the Army on bases in New Jersey, Virginia and Germany. He did not offer details as to what brought him to the long-term care ward but did describe himself as withdrawn up until he was first visited by a volunteer with a therapy dog.
I DIDN’T WANT TO DEAL WITH ANYONE
BUT THE ANIMALS MADE ME FEEL AT EASE
After participating in animal-assisted therapy, Rawls began writing lyrics with the center’s music therapist:
I WAS RAISED IN THE COUNTRY
PLAYING WITH MY COUSINS AROUND THE PECAN TREE
EATING WATERMELON AND GRAPES OFF THE VINE
Just outside the window to Rawls’ room, yellow earth-moving equipment marks a lot where a new hospice wing is going up. Daytime television plays on a flat-screen monitor.
AFTER THE CROPS ARE IN, COMES THE HARVEST FESTIVAL
HAY RIDES, SWEET TEA, BBQ LIKE A CARNIVAL
Hewitt shifts the languid, relaxed form of Archie so that Rawls’ fingertips can better trace Archie’s fur.
GETTING THE DOGS READY TO RUN DEER
BEFORE WE START ANOTHER YEAR.
A nurse enters the room and attends to the life support equipment that surrounds Rawls’ bed. Rawls types out kind words for the nurse, who then thanks him by name.
Archie sits below the quiet conversation, sphinx-like, 15 pounds of Carolina short-hair tabby. The chemistry between the animal and Rawls – a currency of minutes spent together, without promises or prescription – is not lost on Cornett.
“Mr. Rawls,” Cornett says, “I’m going to bring the new recruits to you first.”