Statue-still in bed, the comatose man in his mid-20s had not moved for weeks. His desperate parents kept vigil at his bedside, the silence in the intensive care unit (ICU) punctuated only by the beep of machines keeping their son alive.
The strained atmosphere was interrupted by a cheery ‘hello’ from Helen Moss, and the arrival of her Cockapoo, Tilly Rose, who gently nuzzled the mother’s leg.
A mental health first-aid trainer, from Skelmanthorpe in West Yorkshire, Helen introduced herself to the unconscious young man. ‘I explained I had brought Tilly, a therapy dog, to see him,’ she says. ‘She put her paws on the waterproof pad placed on the bed, then the patient’s dad took his son’s hand and guided it to Tilly’s head and they stroked her.
‘I talked about Tilly and what we did in the ICU. The patient’s eyes flickered — and we held our breath to see if he would move again. Sadly, he remained unconscious, so we settled back to chatting, which distracted his parents from the stress of their present life.
‘A few weeks later, the man regained consciousness, and one of the first things he asked about was Tilly. He could clearly recall our visit. It was such a powerful demonstration of what can be achieved with pet therapy.’
It was all in a day’s work for Helen, 53, and Tilly, who visit patients in the ICU wards at Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and Calderdale Royal Hospital as part of a voluntary scheme to bring comfort to patients.
Helen’s daughter, Kelly, then a play worker at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, had witnessed the benefits of bringing dogs on to wards and encouraged her mother to look into it for Tilly.
Helen contacted the charity Pets As Therapy and was informed that to be considered suitable for the task, dogs need to be calm and friendly, which Tilly is. Helen underwent training in hygiene, ward protocols and infection control procedures before the pair were allowed to visit patients.
‘We go in to a hospital when invited by the staff, patients or their relatives,’ she says. ‘We have a bag with Tilly’s things. She sniffs inside and knows the blue collar and lead [the charity’s colours] means she is going to work. Tilly knows where to go when we get to the hospital and leads me in.’
Helen and her husband, Steve, 54, have owned their company Purple Dog for a decade. They teach mental health and first aid to NHS trusts and commercial companies. In her spare time, Helen takes Tilly in to the ICUs.
Lilian Henshaw, from Holmfirth, is just one of many patients who have benefited from a visit from Helen and her pet. The 70-year-old had spent four nights in ICU with sepsis and was at a crucial point in her recovery. ‘I was frightened and knew I was fighting for my life,’ she recalls. ‘Helen and Tilly’s visit was the best medicine. It was so soothing to stroke Tilly — it took my mind off reality.’
Helen says the boost to people’s mental health is visible. ‘Being a patient, a family member or staff in ICU is high-pressured. We work with the sickest people — some are unable to respond and others face a long journey to recovery.
‘It’s been shown that stroking an animal can reduce blood pressure. But it also helps with mental health, giving anxious relatives another focus.’
‘Helen has the professional experience to talk to worried or grieving families, or anxious staff, but Tilly is often the icebreaker. They’re a powerful double act,’ says Paul Knight, an ICU consultant at the Huddersfield and Calderdale hospitals, who nominated Helen and Tilly as Health Heroes.
Staff can also talk to Helen in confidence, allowing them to confide in someone who is linked to the unit but without burdening another team member.
Last year, when Joanne Morrell, 47, an ICU nurse, lost her 79-year-old mother, Jean, Helen was a lifeline. ‘Even now, if I have a down day and contact Helen, she will talk to me and get me back on my feet,’ Joanne says.
The coronavirus pandemic put a temporary pause on ICU visits for dog and owner, but that did not stop Helen from helping out. During lockdown she made a daily, 32-mile round trip to deliver goodies and treats to the ICUs.
Su Manning, senior sister and critical care ward manager for both hospitals, called Helen an ‘angel’ for her voluntary work during the pandemic.
‘She marshalled local shops and companies to donate toiletries, snacks, bottled water and treats for the staff,’ says Su. ‘It is these little gestures that help everyone get through each day.’
And Su adds: ‘She went over and above. One Muslim patient was in ICU and his family wanted him to hear the Quran. The nurses used laptops so he could join in prayers, until Helen rallied a company to provide a Qur’an Cube [an audio device that recites Quran prayers]. His family were delighted.’
Paul Knight says: ‘Patients can suffer depression and confusion as they recover. Stroking Tilly is an act of normality. And for staff, working in ICU can be emotional. Before coronavirus, when we had deaths, Helen and Tilly often popped in to comfort us. People visibly relax in response to Tilly.’
Helen says her voluntary work with the ICUs has enriched her own life. ‘When I started, it was about letting people see how amazing Tilly is,’ she says.
‘However, this has changed into something far more. If I raise people’s spirits, just by taking my amazing dog into these hospitals, I feel I have achieved something great.
‘I can’t wait to go back. I popped in last week and one of the consultants immediately asked, “Where is Tilly? We want to see her. She is very much missed.” ’