Given the specific personality traits and demeanor a rabbit must possess in order to become certified as a therapy animal, therapy rabbits are relatively uncommon. For a long time, Betsy, my first therapy rabbit, remained the only Pet Partners certified rabbit in Wisconsin. After much work and love, we were then fortunate enough to certify her bonded mate, Walter, who not only blossomed and excelled during therapy sessions, but clearly enjoyed bringing joy to the lives of those who needed it most.  The dynamic duo dedicated five years to visiting hospitals, nursing homes, universities, and the Ronald McDonald House. Walter and Betsy have since hopped to the other side of the bridge, leaving not only a huge void in my heart, but also in the hearts of those impacted by the love they shared.

While we feel fortunate to be a part of a patient or family’s life during such intimate and private moments, the population of people we visit rarely allows us to follow their entire journey. As a therapy handler, I often wonder the depth of impact these visits make on the patient and their families. Recently, we had the opportunity to truly understand the difference rabbit therapy can make during times of sickness and uncertainty. After much consternation, we were encouraged by one family to share their story, in hopes of providing more awareness to the benefits of therapy rabbits. Although the journey for this family is not yet complete, they felt compelled to share, as it truly is a story of how paying it forward can sometimes come full circle.

This family’s daily routine was unexpectedly shaken when the wife began to have contractions and in full preterm labor, was admitted to the hospital. She was terrified for the health of her unborn child, and also for her own well-being. The husband seemed just as panicked, as nurses and doctors scrambled to prevent the birth, which would allow the lungs to fully form prior to the infant’s arrival into this world. It became quite apparent among the nurses the morale of this couple was diminishing with each day of uncertainty. One of the nurses had noted the couple had mentioned they had pets, who they both missed dearly, and the doctor thought they couple might benefit from pet therapy. A request was made, and Alfred and Amelia (Walter and Betsy’s successors), were to visit the next day. To the relief of this couple, the intervention had staved off the premature arrival of their little one, and the couple was able to go home that day. The visit was canceled.

Just a week later, the woman again went into labor, this time unable to stop their little bundle of joy from entering the world before fully ready. The infant was whisked off to the NICU, under the care of an entire team of doctors, providing the necessary equipment to continue the premature infant’s growth outside of the mother’s body. The woman, a first time mother, was left feeling she was in a state of limbo, not quite a mother, but not childless either. Her obvious dismay resulted in another request for Alfred and Amelia to visit, but again, the woman was discharged, this time without her little one, prior to the scheduled therapy session. When asked, the woman shared she volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, and in her years of dedicated time, never thought she would be a recipient of their services or donations. The pendulum had fully swung for this family.

While Alfred and Amelia are unable to go into the NICU, due to the severity of illness these infants are facing, it was once again decided rabbit therapy might help this family. The woman was able to see Alfred and Amelia, just outside Children’s Hospital. As the woman watched others “feed” her baby, unable to act on her motherly instincts, she cried. Alfred and Amelia visited, bringing a much needed smile in such a devastating time. She was given pictures of her newborn baby’s first bath, and cried. Alfred and Amelia visited. She cried as she watched a nurse swaddle her baby, aching to hold her flesh and blood. Alfred and Amelia visited. She cried as feelings of guilt and inadequacy flooded her. Alfred and Amelia visited. The look on her face as she felt the soft fur of a rabbit nuzzling into her was something we know was crucial to her healing process. While I will never know for certain, I truly believe her uplifted mood was healing for the infant as well.

The infant is gaining strength each day, and continues to progress towards meeting all necessary components to being discharged. The family remains positive and now feels the infant’s life is out of danger. They are patiently waiting to bring their little one home so they can begin this new chapter of their life….with big brother and sister, Alfred and Amelia. You see, this time, this is my story.

Bailey Ann Eckert was born at 34 weeks on June 24 at 2:50pm, weighing 5lbs, .6oz and stretching 17.3 inches long. She remains in the NICU Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, and in a time full of uncertainty, as I stare at the bag full of items donated from the March of Dimes and the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern Wisconsin, I am certain of one thing. The impact therapy rabbits make is one that will last a lifetime. We look forward to Bailey continuing on this saga I have started, as Alfred and Amelia will continue Walter and Betsy’s. Our quest for therapy rabbit awareness will continue, as the forces have grown by one.

Alfred and Amelia, welcoming the soon to be addition.

Bailey, right after birth.

Mom and Bailey, just a couple hours after, now in the NICU.

Dad and Bailey.

Mom and Bailey.

Alfred and Amelia, having a snack before getting ready to train their new handler.

Bailey Ann Eckert, Pet Partners handler-in-training.