Four-legged friends

The DO Book Club, July 2021: Mutual Rescue

Carol Novello shares incredible stories that illustrate how animal companionship can benefit the mind, body, and spirit.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Welcome back to The DO Book Club!

For July, Sherri Eldin, OMS III, read Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too by Carol Novello with Ginny Graves.

If you’ve read this one, please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you’d like to write a book review for a future month, please email rraymond@osteopathic.org.

Plot summary

On my first day of medical school, I wore a T-shirt with a cat on it (yes, I’m *that* girl). I did it partly because I like to lead with my weirdness in new situations; I did it partly because my rescue cat was on my mind. He had come to live with me less than a year prior after being rescued by Felines for Adoption Cat Rescue in northern New Jersey, and I was wondering how my rigorous school schedule and the long hours apart would impact him.

Looking back now, I realize I also was subconsciously wanting to bring something very important into this space where we were about to begin learning about healing: that animals are some of the most powerful healers out there.

As the school year went on and I found myself thinking about this more and more, I set out to search for a book on the topic and found Mutual Rescue.

At the book’s foundation is a series of stories about combat veterans, teenagers who survived the 2018 Parkland high school tragedy, individuals living with depression, obesity, developmental differences and cardiovascular issues, and others. We hear from each person themselves (and/or family members in some cases) about what life was like before and after adopting their pet.

The authors take the opportunity to educate us on the intricacies of each condition that arises, and do a particularly excellent job with PTSD, inflammatory conditions, and addiction. They introduce us to concepts and theories such as post-traumatic growth, active coping, ‘petitation’ (a clever twist on ‘meditation’), and more.

They show us how animals can help their humans break through the walls that have been holding them back, especially when the animal’s own past shares similarities with their human’s (this is especially apparent in situations of abuse, neglect, and physical disability).

We are provided with evidence in the form of research studies from around the world as well as excerpts from interviews with practicing physicians and other clinicians. One physician shares that he always asks new patients about their pets when taking their history and makes sure to write down the pets’ names.

Another section of the book focuses on how our learning to connect with, open up to, and trust our animal friends translates into our relationships with our health care providers.

As with any published work, there is always room for improvement, and there were two things here that stood out to me. The first was the use of the word “owner” whenever referring to humans.

Considering that “mutual” is the first word of the title, and that several stories demonstrate how the animal is actually the one bringing more to the relationship, the word “owner” creates an unequal dynamic that takes away from the message that the book sets out to convey.

The other pitfall is that there is no discussion of the work that goes into taking care of another living being. The incredible and inspiring stories in this book show how bringing an animal into the home can inspire change, growth, and healing, but like anything when it comes to our health, it is all individual.

For example, some patients may be experiencing a depression that has left them unable to get up and go for a walk, which would be very challenging and unfortunate for their canine companion.

Interesting tidbits for DOs

The scenario of the previous paragraph, however, brings up some interesting food for thought and potential for our work as osteopathic physicians. Just as we discuss with our patients which pharmaceutical or therapy may be the right choice for them, or implement the 5 A’s of smoking cessation, we can also bring this topic to the table and assess if and when a patient might be ready to adopt a pet.

In recent years, the medical industry has focused more on the importance of emotional and mental well-being, no matter which organ system or subspecialty is at hand. We have seen how turning inward and using tools such as mindfulness and spirituality are among the most powerful things we can do to not only heal our existing maladies, but also prevent future ones.

The relationship we forge with our natural world—especially animals—is key to our mental and emotional well-being.

Notable quotes

On pet programs within prisons: “We know from research that hugging and petting an animal affects you on a cellular level, because it triggers your brain to release all these calming chemicals, like oxytocin and serotonin. Imagine being able to show love to an animal when you’ve been forced to tamp down your emotions for years. It allows inmates to open up and connect with their humanity again.” p. 70-71

On pets and heart health: “The first study to find a link between companion animals and heart health was published in 1980 … Of the thirty-nine patients in the study who didn’t [have an animal companion], eleven died a year after [their heart attack or episode of chest pain]. Of the fifty-three who did have an animal companion, all but three were still alive a year later.” p. 82

Takeaways

Last September, I reviewed Fallible: A Memoir of a Young Physician’s Struggle with Mental Illness. Mutual Rescue is a great companion to Fallible, as it not only demonstrates how important mental health truly is, but also gives us a different (and perhaps new) tool to improve and maintain it that many of us may have not considered before.

This book is a good introduction to a practice that has the power to change how we approach medicine. Animals’ role in our living our healthiest and best lives should be celebrated and embraced. Also, nothing beats the feeling of knowing that we’ve helped our animal companions in return.

In addition to being a book title, Mutual Rescue is also an organization co-founded by Carol Novello. Mutual Rescue shares compelling stories of the power of the human-animal connection, mainly via a series of short videos, and is currently calling for new stories. Learn more here.

August’s book

For August, The DO Book Club will be reading The Undying: Pain, vulnerability, mortality, medicine, art, time, dreams, data, exhaustion, cancer, and care by Anne Boyer. We encourage all who are interested to read along (this book club can be followed at any pace)! If you are unable to get out to a local library or bookstore, we recommend checking out eBook options.

As a reminder, if you read How Not to Die or any previous Book Club selection and want your reflections to be shared in future posts, or want to write your own book review for a future month, please leave a comment below or send an email to rraymond@osteopathic.org.

Happy reading!

Related reading:

The DO Book Club, June 2021: How Not to Die

The DO Book Club, May 2021: Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science

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