"I woke up every day wanting to be the person my dog thinks I am," says author, pediatrician and HIV survivor Dr. Rob Garofalo

By Jeff Truesdell
June 10, 2021 11:06 AM
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When Dogs Heal
Lynnea Lawson and daughter Naelyn with her dog Coconut
| Credit: Jesse Freidin

Stuck in an abusive relationship and carrying the stigma of her discovery at age 7 that she was HIV-positive, an adult Lynnea Lawson believed she didn't deserve any better from life than what she had.

I'm HIV-positive, she thought. Who would want to be with me?

The answer, which she stumbled upon by accident: A dog.

Coconut, the terrier-Chihuahua left to her by a friend, gave Lawson a purpose - to get up when she didn't want to, to set boundaries between what she'd tolerate and what she wouldn't, to regain her confidence to educate others about her disease and brush off the negative thoughts that too often came with it.

"Coconut has shown me I can be loved by another living thing - that I deserve a love that doesn't hurt," Lawson says in the new book, When Dogs Heal; Powerful Stories of People Living With HIV and the Dogs That Saved Them.

The project - which evolved from an exhibit by photographer Jesse Freidin, in partnership with the charity Fred Says that supports HIV-positive youth - sprang from the heart and mind of Dr. Rob Garofalo, a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

When Dogs Heal
Credit: Jesse Freidin

Garofalo, 55, had been working for 10 years with HIV-positive youth when he tested positive in 2010. The news sent him reeling. He felt ashamed and alone and harbored his secret. He'd built a career working with young people "to combat stigma, to see their self-worth, to deal with their diagnosis with self-compassion, to tap into their inner strengths and make sure they can fulfill their destinies," he says. "And yet when I had my own diagnosis, those same principles were really hard to ascribe to myself."

"I saw first-hand how hard it was," he says, "to do the things that I had been teaching and telling young people to do."

When Dogs Heal
Credit: Jesse Freidin

He found a lifeline through an impulsive first step: adopting a 10-week-old Yorkie he named Fred. "With boundless energy, a pure soul, and unconditional love, he was the perfect antidote to the isolation and loneliness that crippled me," he writes in When Dogs Heal. "He had no patience for self-pity. He just wanted to be loved and, more importantly, to love me."

Garofalo tells PEOPLE: "My dog didn't magically make those things better. But I woke up every day wanting to be the person my dog thinks I am."

"My dog taught me about things like self-compassion and how to tap into inner strength," he adds. "And so when I found the solution in part through my dog, that's when, as crazy as it seemed, I wanted to give something back. I wanted to devote this project to telling stories and doing things that I knew, in part, saved me."

Fred Says, the charity he began in 2012, has now raised and given away more than $300,000 to community agencies that care for HIV-positive teens. At first, created as a traveling exhibit, the book's photographic portraits took shape the next year.

Take HIV/AIDS away from the book's 36 first-person profiles, and it's still a remarkable collection of stories about how pets, dogs in particular, can transform lives. But the resilience those particular stories convey is intentionally, inextricably linked to the sometimes deadly disease, although one that's now more often chronic and treatable.

"How many times have you read a story about HIV that's wedded in triumph, or that's grounded in love, or that has a focus on the future?" says Garofalo. "That's what's special about these participants and their stories. They shift the narrative."

"With the help of a dog, these people are not just surviving and overcoming," he says. "They're thriving."

When Dogs Heal
Richard Moore and his dog, Stoli
| Credit: Jesse Freidin

One of those people, Richard Moore, 47, learned of his HIV diagnosis after suffering a stroke at age 29. He became reclusive and didn't take his prescribed medications for years because "I didn't want to be reminded of it," he says. Confined to a wheelchair after paralysis set in, he stayed inside 24/7. Then his best friend introduced him to a dog. Moore resisted. "You love him back," the friend said of the animal, "or your ass is going to die."

Moore's attitude slowly changed. "For one, he had the biggest brown eyes and the big floppy ears," he says. "And by me taking him out and him looking for me pretty much to provide everything for him, it just gave me a sense of purpose."

After a later setback, Moore planned out which pills he would take to kill himself. His dog, Stoli, "jumped on my chest and kind of snapped me out of it." He needs me, Moore thought, and in the dog walk that followed, Moore decided, I can fight for one more day.

The fight continues. "Stoli has definitely been instrumental in that fight, for sure," says Moore, who now walks again on his own. "He lets me know that I'm not alone in the world, that anything I put my mind to, I can do it."

After her own childhood diagnosis passed on from a mother with HIV, "I feel like I was judged," Lawson, 36, tells PEOPLE. "I had to just stick to myself and not make friends. And I felt that people would not accept me. I grew up really feeling like I couldn't trust people. Then when I did feel like I could trust someone and would disclose to them my status, they would change the way they treated me."

"When I did find relationships with people that were willing to be close to me, regardless of how toxic or violent they were, I tried my best to hold on to them," she says. "I felt like I would not find better."

Her pet pooch Coconut showed her otherwise.

"Here comes this little dog who, regardless of what's going on first thing in the morning, does not care that I didn't brush my teeth. He doesn't care if I didn't take a shower," she says. "He needs to eat. He needs someone to throw the ball. He needs his hugs. There's no judgment whatsoever. And I felt like I needed that."

Out went her Lawson's boyfriend. She re-engaged with her activism, participating in a video project with the organization Greater Than AIDS about HIV and intimate partner violence, and joined a second project, Through Positive Eyes, that puts cameras in the hands of HIV-positive people and helps them to become visual storytellers.

"It's outreach work in prevention and trying to eradicate stigma at every level," says Lawson. "Whenever the opportunity arises, I try to make sure that if there's something I can do, I participate and share my story."

"One thing I try to get through to people dealing with an HIV diagnosis: you're still going to have to wash your laundry, still going to have to clean your bathroom. Life is going to continue. Bills will be due - normal life issues," she says.

"But being loved and being deserving of love from another living creature, like I saw from my little doggy here," she says, "it shows that you're able to find it from another."