How One Very Special Dog Is Changing Lives at a Rehab Center in St. Louis
“Bandit provides a sense of home for people, especially those who miss their pets,” said Tara Diebling
Kelly Moffatt didn’t even consider changing the name of the English Black Labrador Retriever who came to live with her in 2012.
“He was already named Bandit and I liked the name,” said Moffatt, a psychosocial counselor at the Rehabilitation Institute of St. Louis (TRISL). “Bandit is an outlaw who doesn’t follow the rules. I am in that boat with him.”
And Moffatt means that in the best possible way. She overcame the limitations of cerebral palsy to pursue a high-stress career where she works with patients who must suddenly cope with life-altering illnesses or injuries including limb loss, stroke and speech disorder.
And according to TRISL CEO Tara Diebling, few in the field are more skilled than Moffatt.
“In patient rehabilitation, we play such a special part in the lives of patients, their families and friends. Think about it. The average length of stay is around two weeks for someone who experienced a traumatic injury, stroke, or accident that completely changed his or her life,” she said. “Kelly has a way of listening to [and connecting with] patients that is just unparalleled.”
When she started working at TRISL, Moffatt was very strict about Bandit’s whereabouts. He aided her without distraction, but she did insist he not accompany her during patient consultations.
“I know some people have intense fear of dogs and I didn’t want to just roll into a room with a dog in tow,” she said. “He spent a lot of time in my office.”
That changed one day in 2014 when Moffatt returned to her office and found a patient – who was not able to verbalize fears or emotions to clinicians – sitting in the hallway talking to Bandit.
“He was telling Bandit his whole life story, about how he was injured and his fears,” recalled Moffat. “It was like an intervention I wasn’t part of and I realized that’s because the patient received no judgment when he was talking to a dog.”
At first Moffatt was concerned about integrating Bandit more fully into her work life. Discussions with her colleagues and Bandit’s trainers convinced her to try it. Although Bandit’s main focus is on aiding Moffatt, he routinely accompanies her to patient consultations during their five-day work weeks. In May 2017, they celebrated five years together as a team.
“Bandit is an extension of me and our services,” said Moffatt. “There is a list of people we take him to see. And he loves to show people what he can do. If I drop my phone he picks it up and waits for people to clap for him. He’s saying ‘See what I can do?’ and that happiness and joy radiates to others. It’s like he’s saying ‘If I can do it, you can, too.’ ”
Both Moffatt and Diebling joke that Bandit has one of the heaviest caseloads at the TRISL.
“Bandit provides a sense of home for people, especially those who miss their pets,” said Diebling. “You can just feel the calm when he is there. His nature is very in sync with Kelly’s. And the two of them together are just magic.”
In Bandit’s presence, patients have said their first words following a stroke, taken extra steps following amputation and shared confidences that were otherwise hidden.
“He is really busy but he loves being busy,” said Moffatt. “And I love to see him light up when a patient responds to him. He always looks back at me as if to say ‘See what I am doing?’ “