Barrett Burgess has conquered more in his 9 years than many will in a lifetime. The active third grader from Weatherford loves swimming, hiking and spending time at the lake. Over the last six months, his strength, bravery and positive attitude have been tested beyond what any kid should have to endure. Even in the midst of tackling cancer, Barrett has served as an inspiration to adults and kids alike as he continually chooses joy, thanks especially to the help of several four-legged friends.
Barrett mom’s, Amber, a former nurse, knew something was wrong when Barrett’s swollen lymph nodes weren’t responding to antibiotics. As the family waited on a referral to an ENT, Amber became even more concerned when Barrett’s enlarged neck caused him difficulty breathing normally. When Amber ran her fingers through Barrett’s hair she felt knots along his scalp and decided with conviction they couldn’t wait any longer.
Thanks to the quick response of local physicians and nurses, Barrett received a cat scan, which indicated a mass in his chest, and immediate referral to OU Children’s Hospital. The family waited anxiously as Barrett battled pain and nausea. A brief respite came in the form of a visit with one of the hospital’s therapy dogs. That was Barrett’s first encounter with golden retriever Targa’s soft ears, gentle nature and wagging tail. Barrett was admitted to Children’s in April and a few days later received a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In the midst of so much uncertainty, it was Targa who lifted Barrett’s spirits.
“Every day he would ask if Targa could come over,” said Amber. “As soon as she would walk in the room he would forget that anything crazy was going on. He’d light up, smile, play with her and pet her.”
Barrett’s new friend Targa was the first member of the facility dog program at Children’s and the first full-time facility dog in the state of Oklahoma. Children’s began the program in September 2017 thanks to funds raised by Edmond North High School. Two more full-time dogs, Dany and Ned, were quickly added to the team, and the hospital will add a fourth furry friend in 2020.
“These dogs were trained from birth to work in children’s hospitals so they intuitively know what is expected of them,” said Skyler Taylor, facility dog program coordinator for OU Children’s Hospital and one of Targa’s handlers. “They understand one patient might need play time and giggles while another needs a paw to hold or comforting snuggle. Sometimes the mom or dad is the most stressed in the room and the dog will pull toward them in that moment.”
The facility dogs are utilized in a variety of ways, with doctors and nurses regularly requesting their presence to help both patients and families. The dogs assist with pain management, redirecting attention or distracting patients when they have reached their pain medication threshold. They help patients like Barrett cope with longtime or frequent hospital stays.
“When the dogs come in it’s like all the bad stuff disappears momentarily and it alleviates their anxiety,” said Amber. “The owners and dogs give the kids a break from thinking about
the serious stuff so they can just be kids.”
The dogs eagerly play fetch with parents, siblings or other family members who can’t all be in patients’ rooms at once. They also provide frequent shoulders to cry on or a listening ear when patients or parents have emotions to share but aren’t quite ready to release those to another human. Though Barrett has struggled to talk with his mom about his feelings since diagnosis, Amber
has watched Targa provide critical emotional support to her son.
“The dogs give comfort in a way that people can’t always offer,” said Taylor. Noting Barrett’s connection to Targa, his doctors often request she attend upcoming procedures or treatments.
“Knowing a procedure will be difficult, they will say, ‘Let’s call Targa to be with the patient for this,’ knowing what a difference that will make,” said Taylor. “Some patients might even refuse to take medications for a nurse, but when we bring Targa in, he can navigate that process on his own in a way he couldn’t 10 minutes before.”
The facility dogs’ abilities to help Barrett stay hopeful prompted the Burgess family to consider getting a furry friend of their own. Barrett was adamant he wanted a dog just like Targa — a female golden retriever. Amber located a female puppy through a breeder in Pauls Valley and when she asked what Barrett wanted to name her, his response was instantaneous: Joy.
Joy’s name is an apt representation of Barrett and his entire family’s attitude since his diagnosis and throughout treatment.
“As bad as it hurts to watch him go through this, he is the one who’s having to do it,” said Amber. “If everyone is sad and worried he is going to respond to that. So we do everything
we can to help him stay upbeat with a good attitude because we believe that can really change your life.”
Joy fit right in to the Burgess family and has helped Barrett regain the positivity that’s been hard to hold on to through his tough journey.
“He hasn’t been his usual self,” said Amber. “That light in my kid has not been there. But we got Joy and it’s like my little boy is back.”
One day while riding with his mom to the pharmacy, Barrett’s shared his frustration that he couldn’t seem to get relief from the pain and nausea.
“He said, ‘I don’t understand why it had to be me,’” Amber recalls. Amber affirmed those feelings and reminded Barrett, as she does often, how proud she is of his bravery and strength.
Known at Children’s for cracking jokes with his doctors and nurses and taking his treatments with no fuss, Barrett’s happy nature rubs off on the staff and other patients alike. He’s often called an inspiration. Though he still gets nervous for various procedures, he focuses on the good he knows will come post-appointment — a chance to grab a sweet treat from one of his
favorite metro shops. In preparation for chemotherapy side effects, Barrett even took shaving his head in stride, throwing a party at his grandma’s house. All the boys in the family shaved their heads together in solidarity. Barrett spent the evening laughing and enjoying compliments on his “cute bald head.”
Though Barrett is — joyfully — officially in remission, he has a long road ahead with treatments scheduled through 2022. Once into the maintenance phase of his treatment around Christmastime, his hair is expected to grow back and hopefully he will start feeling better. In the meantime, Barrett has Joy to remind him of his mantra to choose positivity. Prior to falling sick, Barrett was extremely active, but zapped physical and mental strength has kept him from activities he enjoys. Amber has been grateful that Barrett’s team at Children’s has been accommodating with
the treatment schedule so the family could enjoy a weekend at the lake, where Barrett can’t swim because of his port but has been encouraged to fish, ride in the boat, on the jet skis or tube.
“They really consider and care about a child’s quality of life,” said Amber. “They always say if there’s something he wants to do we will work around it as long as it falls in protocol.”
Even in the first week Joy came home Barrett’s adventurous self began to reemerge as he considered places he could take his new pup, like hiking at Red Rock Canyon, a family favorite. Barrett hopes to one day get Joy certified as a therapy dog so she can come with him to the hospital when he has treatment and he can share Joy with other patients, too.
“Giving him that responsibility and knowing he had her as a companion helped him,” said Amber. “I want him to know it’s OK to cry but we have to stay positive and enjoy life even though he is going through this.”
Editor’s note: Super Kids of the Metro is a new monthly series highlighting the superheroes in our midst. We’ll be featuring local kids who are overcoming obstacles, making a positive impact on the community, soaring to new heights and inspiring others. If you know a Super Kid we should consider featuring, email email@example.com.