When Gary Gerlach awoke in a patient bed at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital, the 74-year-old veteran didn’t have his driver’s license, money, luggage or anything else he had brought when he began traveling a day earlier.
Despite missing several essential items while being nearly 2,000 miles from his home in California, Gerlach was primarily concerned with who wasn’t beside him.
“Mr. Gerlach just kept asking where his dog was,” said Francine Richardson, RN-BC, a nurse in the medical surgical unit where Gerlach was admitted.
Odin von Furstenfeld—Gerlach’s companion, confidant and canine—was nowhere to be found.
As details of Gerlach’s journey became clearer, so did the important role Odin von Furstenfeld played in his life, prompting an extraordinary response from hospital staff to reunite the pair.
“We just wanted to do right by our patient,” said Richardson, who also co-chairs the hospital’s patient experience committee.
Who Is Odin von Furstenfeld?
Odin von Furstenfeld is everything to Gerlach.
The pure-bred Doberman pinscher is a certified service animal who supports Gerlach when chronic back pain causes him to lose his balance. Odin von Furstenfeld is also trained to seek help if Gerlach falls.
Gerlach adopted Odin von Furstenfeld when the dog was 10 weeks old. Odin von Furstenfeld, now almost 4 years old, sleeps on Gerlach’s bed every night and travels everywhere with him.
He has also helped fill an incredibly painful void in Gerlach’s life.
“I lost my wife of 30 years eight years ago and I’m still not over it,” Gerlach said. “Odin is the most wonderful friend in the world to me.”
After seeing how Gerlach was impacted by the absence of his friend and learning that dog was also in need of medication it had not received in two days, Richardson and other staff members began the search for Odin von Furstenfeld.
Finding Odin von Furstenfeld
Staff retraced Gerlach’s journey to the hospital, discovering that he had been traveling to an international destination from California and had an overnight layover in Houston. Gerlach fell ill at his hotel and was taken by ambulance to Memorial Hermann Northeast, which is when he was separated from Odin von Furstenfeld.
Social worker Brandi Ford contacted the hotel and learned that Odin von Furstenfeld had been relocated to an animal shelter in downtown Houston. The general number Ford was given for the shelter wasn’t working, but Paola Salazar, a social work intern student, was able to secure a number that went directly to a representative at the shelter.
Ford then had a temporary hold placed on Odin von Furstenfeld to prevent anyone from adopting him for a few days.
Patient relations representative Maria Velazquez also contacted the hotel and was able to secure all of Gerlach’s belongings and returned them to him. Velazquez also contacted Odin von Furstenfeld’s veterinarian in California and had his vaccination records emailed, per the animal shelter’s request.
Not an Everyday Situation
Gerlach’s condition was improving. Odin von Furstenfeld had been found. But there were still plenty of considerations and questions surrounding when and how the two could be reunited.
Richardson did her due diligence in looking for answers.
“Our patient experience committee is about making memorable experiences,” Richardson said. “I wanted to make sure we were doing all we could in this situation.”
The self-proclaimed dog lover consulted director of CRM and patient access Rhonda Dishongh, and patient care director Leia Engle to update them on the situation and ensure she was taking appropriate action. She enlisted the help of volunteer services manager Liz Tise, who facilitates therapy dog visits at the hospital. Richardson also used some internal resources to take a crash course on animal visitation, pet therapy and Americans with Disabilities Act facility guidelines regarding service animals.
Once it was clear Odin von Furstenfeld could enter Gerlach’s room, there was only one thing left to do.
Security manager Joshua Phipps drove Tise and Richardson 15 miles to the animal shelter to pick up Gerlach’s beloved companion.
Richardson held Odin von Furstenfeld’s leash as he obediently walked alongside her into Gerlach’s hospital room. The special bond between the two was apparent when they saw each other.
“Hello, my baby! Hello, my sweetheart!” Gerlach said as he greeted Odin von Furstenfeld with a hug.
Odin von Furstenfeld excitedly wagged his tail and placed his head on Gerlach’s shoulder.
“He’s so good. He’s so wonderful,” Gerlach said. “You can’t imagine how wonderful he is.”
After the initial embrace, Gerlach retrieved Odin von Furstenfeld’s prescribed medicine from his belongings recovered from the hotel and administered them to his faithful companion.
Before Gerlach was discharged, Richardson helped him reschedule his flight and book another hotel room. Two days later, Gerlach and Odin von Furstenfeld continued on their journey.
“It was so amazing to see the power of teamwork in making this happen,” Richardson said. “This is going to be one of the highlights of my career.”
Learn more about Memorial Hermann Northeast here.