[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hey sniff and lick our toes. They drag us out of bed every morning. They bring us joy and show us the true meaning of friendship, compassion, and unconditional love. They are our dogs, and we cannot imagine life without them.
Dr. Robert Garofalo certainly can’t. Doctor Rob, how his patients tend to call him, is Division Head of Adolescent Medicine and the Director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality and HIV Prevention at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He has worked in the HIV field for many years, but receiving his own HIV diagnosis in 2010 left him isolated and lonely, and unsure of where his life was taking him. And so, though he had never had a dog in his life, he decided to get one. “And I remember that my best friend told me that it was one of the most selfish decisions that I would ever make,” he says, “because I couldn’t take care of myself at the time, so how was I going to take care of a dog?”
But it turned out that a Yorkie named Fred changed his life in a most miraculous way. “I wasn’t sure that my life would ever have peace or joy back in it,” he explains, his voice breaking up with emotion. “And this little…creature brought it all back,” he adds talking about his dog. “This giant ball of positive energy needed me when he was a puppy, but I needed him more.”
In 2012 Doctor Rob started a charity, Fred Says, to help others who are living with HIV. Today Fred Says has almost 50,000 Facebook followers who often share stories about their own dogs.
A couple of years later, in 2014, during an event, he remembers looking at pictures of his dog, when a man sitting next to him commented on the pictures, and that he should meet his son, an award-winning pet photographer living in San Francisco. And as the doctor was planning to visit San Francisco only a couple of weeks later, he met, and then became friends with the photographer, Jesse Freidin.
One day, they were sitting in Freidin’s studio, in L.A., making plans for Fred Says, when they came up with the idea of a new charity, When Dogs Heal, to capture the healing power of dogs, in this case, over people living with HIV. And so, they started to put the idea into action. They began by recruiting HIV-positive individuals from every demographic group of HIV, from all across the spectrum, and country. And they travelled from San Francisco and L.A. to Chicago, New York, and, most recently, Atlanta.
“Each city has its own flavor and feel for some reason,” Doctor Rob says. “In L.A. we’ve got a number of African-American women who told their stories of healing. But San Francisco really stood out. [There] we were getting a narrative of the epidemic.” He explains that so many people in San Francisco had been infected some thirty years ago. They didn’t think they would be alive today to tell their stories. And, so, their dogs became symbols of hope for them.
The stories are rather amazing, and they run the gamut, speaking of overcoming loneliness, feeling marginalized and alienated after an HIV diagnosis, addiction, violence, and also of dogs playing roles in companionship and helping people overcome addiction.
There’s the story of a San Franciscan meth dealer, whose best friend was also a meth dealer. The best friend had a dog. When police raided the friend’s apartment, the friend went to jail, and the dog got injured. He decided to save the dog, and ended up saving himself. He has lived his life sober ever since.
In Chicago a man had just been diagnosed with HIV. He was sitting on the street, devastated, when a stray dog came up and sat next to him, and then followed him home. And he’s had the dog ever since.
“So, there are stories of hope and healing, addiction and learning what unconditional love was supposed to be about, because so many people that get HIV feel that they are not lovable anymore,” Doctor Rob says. While working on the project—photo shoots started in 2014, in Chicago, and continued this year in other cities—he has also formed strong connections with all those who have volunteered to be part of the project. “I was really taken back by how motivated these people were to tell their stories and help [others]. I talked to them all about their individual stories and their dogs, and there’s a bond between us all, because we’ve all been there,” he adds. “They are quite amazing! I feel really indebted to these wonderful people, and their pets.”
Those participating in the When Dogs Heal project are as diverse as their stories, and also as their dogs, which, in turn, range from pure to mixed breeds, and also rescue dogs. “The dogs were very well behaved. Jesse [Freidin] is a pro,” Doctor Rob says, when I inquire about the actual photo shoots.
As they travel from city to city, Jesse Freidin is in charge of the photography, and then Zach Stafford, the writer on the team, interviews each participant, and writes short stories that would, then, accompany the photographs.
“When Dogs Heal feels like a very natural continuation of my photography investigating the healing nature of the dog/human bond,” photographer Jesse Freidin says, talking about the project. “Because Rob had commissioned me years ago to create portraits of his own dog, Fred, I was already personally invested in his beautiful story, which makes this collaboration so important. At a moment when HIV awareness is beginning to shift, When Dogs Heal is such an exciting opportunity to make a difference, incite positive change, and bring the focus back to the epidemic. As an artist, there is nothing that inspires me more.”
Zach Stafford adds, “When Dogs Heal is a really special project to me as both a writer, and a person who has been personally affected by HIV/AIDS. When we first came up with the idea, I had just released a book called Boys, An Anthology, which explored the lives of gay and queer men all around the world. I loved doing that book so much because I think stories are not only life saving, but also freeing—especially the stories that go untold. When we, as a group, came up with the idea for this project that perfectly meshed a lot of our collective talents and lives, I was selfishly thrilled. I have lost a few family members to HIV/AIDS over the years—probably most notably my grandmother—and to be able to work on something that allowed me to meet so many people that survived something that so many people I love didn’t was truly humbling. And to meet the dogs that helped them do this is simply inspiring.
“I always tell friends that When Dogs Heal is a lot of things, but most importantly it’s evidence of the power of love and how love can be the thing that can save us all. And as a writer I am really honored to be able to hopefully help show that with these stories.”
When Dogs Heal–People Living with HIV and the Dogs that Saved Them comes from the collaborative work of three very passionate individuals who put together this amazing charity. “We did it together,” the doctor says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project that was more collaborative in this sense. It was really…these three guys in a studio in L.A. sitting over coffee, coming up with this crazy idea, and then putting it into action. Zach [Stafford] is a writer. Jesse [Freidin] is a photographer. I was the guy with the backstory. It was really about tapping into each other’s strengths, and trying to produce a project that was different.”
There’s also a fourth member of the incredible When Dogs Heal team, and that’s Dr. Garofalo’s niece, Christina Garofalo, who handles the social media and writes the blog. She explains that, “After receiving their diagnoses, some of [the participants] struggled with the will to take their medication—medication that’s expensive and can have harsh side effects—and others with the emotional effect of the stigma of being positive. But nearly all of them said that knowing they had their dog depending on them gave them the will to take care of themselves. It’s incredible how having to put someone else’s needs first, you end up—in a way—putting yourself, your life, first. For these people, their dogs taught them to find the purpose and value in their own lives again.”
When Dogs Heal connects dogs to the mission. “[It also] allows us to be a little creative,” Doctor Rob explains. He has noticed that things have gotten a little stale, when it comes to finding fresh ways in which to address HIV and AIDS nowadays. “Medications have become so much more effective,” he says, “but I don’t think there is an energy, at least in this country, in the sense of talking about HIV the way we used to. I don’t think you read news stories about HIV anymore in the mainstream media. Hopefully that’s because people aren’t dying anymore, and that’s a great thing. When Dogs Heal–People Living with HIV and the Dogs that Saved Them focuses on living. That’s a big change. It’s really about the dogs rescuing people.”
When I ask if he and Fred are part of the project, he replies, “That’s a big question. Everybody knows my story already, and I’d rather focus on other people, but I think my picture with Fred will be [on the website, but] it’s [not] going to be the focus.”
When he first started the Fred Says charity, he did not include his own HIV story. “I was very stingy about my own environment,” Doctor Rob explains. “I would just say, ‘Fred helped me through a difficult time in my life,’ but I would never tell anybody what [that] was.” But then he realized that he had to tell his own HIV story, in order to help others. “It took me a while to be honest about my own story, as part of this charitable work, and that speaks to the hidden nature of HIV and the stigma that still lives on. Hopefully, a project like this will help break down some of that stigma, and make it a little easier for people out there living with HIV.”
When Dogs Heal’s website launches October 1. Three art exhibits are to open simultaneously on World AIDS Day, as part of the When Dogs Heal Project—at the LGBT Center in New York City; in Chicago; and in San Francisco, at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Plans are to promote each as a “story of the week” on the blog, and also to take the exhibit on the road, in the upcoming year, to universities, schools and communities, especially in cities that are the hotspots of new HIV infections.
“Hopefully I’ll continue to do what I do, to make the world a better place for all sorts of people, but certainly people living with HIV and AIDS,” Doctor Rob says, speaking about his own plans. “I hope that this message of the [healing] power of pets, specifically dogs in this case, will continue.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.