Matthew Reynolds sat on cement blocks near an entrance to Butler High last week, his 75-pound golden retriever by his side. The 13-year-old from Steele Creek put his hand on her head.
“This,” he said, “is my medicine right here.”
The dog is medicine for other kids, too. She's a therapy dog, a pooch that offers support and love to ill people and others.
Such a dog helped Matthew get through his nearly three-year battle with leukemia. Their bond pushed Matthew, now healthy, to get his own therapy dog. Now the pair are preparing to visit cancer-stricken kids together at Levine Children's Hospital.
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“This hospital did so much for me, I want to give back,” Matthew said, “for kids who are not as fortunate as me.”
Four years ago, Matthew, the elder of Darin and Pam Reynolds' two children, experienced sudden pains and fatigue. Doctors diagnosed leukemia, and the 9-year-old went to the Carolinas Medical Center's pediatric oncology clinic to have a port-a-cath put in. There, he met Willow.
“What is a dog doing in a hospital?” Matthew recalled thinking. She was there to help, comforting him and walking with him to the operating room.
Within a month, Matthew was in remission, but he had more than two years of chemotherapy lined up.
The first six months were especially rough. He was sometimes in such pain he would howl when anyone touched him, and he struggled to sleep. He missed school, his friends and Cub Scouts.
“Literally, the child didn't smile for a couple months,” Darin Reynolds said.
Everyone pitched in. Matthew's parents never left him alone in the hospital. Friends and members of his church donated money and disposable toothbrushes.
Then, there was Willow.
Matthew saw her whenever he went to the clinic. She retrieved toys he threw down the hallway or just put her head on his lap. She also let him lie on her, earning the nickname “Willow the Pillow.”
“She was more in to me than the other (therapy dogs),” Matthew said. “If she was with someone else and I walked into the room, she'd walk right up to me. …
“I fell in love with that dog. I said, ‘Mom, I want to get a dog just like Willow.'”
Darin located a breeder of retrievers in Clover, S.C., visited a litter and took Matthew to meet one of the puppies. Darin watched them play on the porch for a while.
Then he said a couple times, “Matthew, what do you think about the dog?”
“She's nice,” he replied.
“Matthew,” Darin said, “what do you think about the dog to take home?”
The boy looked up and beamed. “I was going crazy,” Matthew recalled last week. “I was like, ‘No way.…'”
“It clicked. She looks just like Willow.”
The Reynolds family adopted the dog and named her Willow. A private tutor helped them train her. She kept Matthew company at home while he suffered from more chemo side effects.
Willow and Darin were certified by Therapy Dogs International last year and often visit children at Levine. Just after they got certified, the original Willow died.
Matthew had his last treatment in April 2007. The eighth-grader at Southwest Middle School has caught up with his class work and made the football team.
When he turns 14, Matthew can be certified by Therapy Dogs International. His birthday is Nov. 23.
Until then, he and Willow are preparing. Last week, they attended two cancer fundraisers, including one at Butler. As they walked around the school and inside the cafeteria, Willow allowed herself to be petted by strangers and sniffed by other dogs.
It's important for Willow and Matthew to be able to handle almost any situation, Darin says. “We want to expose her to many circumstances,” he added. “She's still a dog, and you never know what can happen.”
Matthew thinks they're ready. His family says she is well-behaved and poised, just like the original Willow. Matthew's deepening voice rose when he was asked if he's looking forward to it:
“Oh definitely. I've been waiting to take her to the hospital for a long time.”