CHICAGO — Rob Garofalo was devastated. He’d built his medical and research career on helping young AIDS patients. Then he learned that he, too, was HIV-positive. The news came after he’d already survived kidney cancer and a breakup with his longtime partner.
Try as he might, the doctor could not heal himself, at least not emotionally.
“I couldn’t afford myself the same compassion that I’d spent a career teaching other people to have,” says Garofalo, who heads the adolescent medicine division at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. At first, he told almost no one about his HIV status — not even his own elderly mother, who sensed that her son was struggling mightily during a Christmas visit in 2010.
“You can tell me that everything is OK, but it’s not,” she said, cupping her hands around her son’s face at the end of his trip to his native New Jersey.
Garofalo recalls crying on much of the flight home to Chicago in a catharsis that led him to an unexpected decision, one that helped him in ways no human could and ultimately led him to a new role in the HIV community.
He got a dog.
It was a little Yorkshire terrier he named Fred. And everything changed.
“I had this little bundle of, like, pure joy,” Garofalo says. “He made me re-engage with the world.”
The doctor, who’s helped save many an AIDS patient, knows it sounds a little crazy that the companionship and simple needs of a pet could help him cope with his disease and pull him out of depression.
“But I’m not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life,” says Garofalo, who’d considered suicide after his HIV diagnosis.
His journey back to life started with simple things. He had to leave the apartment where he’d isolated himself to buy food for Fred. He had to talk to the many people who wanted to stop and pet the little dog. Garofalo also found comfort when he’d awaken with one of his frequent night terrors and have Fred to snuggle.
Eventually, Garofalo sought counseling and told his mother and friends about his HIV status. As his energy level grew, he also started a charity using Fred’s image to raise money for programs that help HIV-positive teens.
He continued to share his story, even with strangers on Fred’s charity website. And Garofalo began to realize that he was far from the only person with HIV — or any number of other diseases — who’d been helped by a dog. And in that human-canine bond, he saw new purpose and an opportunity to grow his charity’s reach.