Lewis Gray is back at Research Medical Center in Kansas City on a warm mid-May day to have staples removed from his arm. Life’s hard knocks are chiseled deep into his face as he winces, looking away as the nurse tenderly works on stitches that remain as evidence of injuries sustained in an April car accident. The disabled Vietnam vet, who says he’s been a society misfit since returning from the war in 1970, is impatient to leave the doctor’s office—not just to enjoy the freedom of a healed arm, but also to rejoin his best friend: a four-legged Chow-retriever mix named Bear. Research Medical Center is part of HCA Midwest Health System—Kansas City’s largest healthcare provider and private-sector employer.
According to Lewis, more than 15 months of waging combat as a young man in a foreign jungle robbed him of dreams and a sense of belonging. An off-and-on drifter for 30 years, he has held jobs in different parts of the country, including Kansas City. Sometimes Lewis has had enough money to pay rent for shelter from the elements. At other times, down on his luck, he has sought cover under bridges and in alleyways. Lewis says he’s been cynical at best about the goodness of the human spirit.
“I just lost hope along the way,” he says.
Recently Lewis has lived in Kansas City in a friend’s basement, along with Bear. Until April 14, he and his trusty companion spent days in the car, driving around and searching for metal to turn into meager amounts of cash.
“It’s a heck of a way to making a living,” says Lewis. “But one thing has been constant in my life for 14 years,” says Lewis. “Bear. An old vet friend of mine had a dog with a newborn litter. When I visited him one day, right after the pups were born, Bear singled me out. I figured it was a good sign and we’ve been inseparable since.”
On April 14, Lewis was in his broken-down car, scrapping for metal, when his life took an unexpected turn of misfortune. It was a chilly and dewy morning and Lewis was unaware his shoes were damp from exiting the car to check out a small shiny object. Back behind the wheel, with Bear sitting in the passenger’s seat, Lewis’s foot slipped off the brake and hit the accelerator.
The car careened into a ditch.
A passerby called 911 and Lewis, who suffered a broken arm and a severely punctured lung, was transported to Research Medical Center’s emergency room.
Bear, unhurt, was left behind as the ambulance carrying his master left the scene.
Before Lewis fell unconscious in the emergency room at Research Medical Center, he asked the nurses and physicians of Bear’s whereabouts. He didn’t get an answer, but the staff didn’t forget the question.
After he was stabilized, Lewis was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.
It was then that Research Medical Center’s trauma and pastoral care teams orchestrated a Bear hunt.
The dog was located within 24 hours at a Kansas City animal shelter.
Two Research Medical Center employees, critical care family navigator Tanner Cook and chaplain resident, Barbara Hadley, consulted with the KCPD, animal control and the KC Pet Project to ensure Bear could stay at the shelter as a foster pet.
“With the knowledge that Bear had an owner, he was no longer on the five-day stray list and was able to escape euthanization,” says Hadley.
Through further creative investigation, pastoral care found a friend of Lewis’ willing to pick up Bear and care for him until his owner was strong enough to return home.
Lewis regained consciousness and was transferred from ICU to the hospital’s sixth floor to recover. The pastoral care staff and those in trauma services were able to experience the joy of telling Lewis that his furry partner was safe and patiently waiting for him.
“To witness Lewis’s overwhelming joy and gratitude when we told him Bear was okay is indescribable,” says Hadley.
On April 23, a happy and healthy Bear was picked up from the KC Pet Project to wait for his master and friend.
“Bear has protected me all these years, including when we were on the streets,” says Lewis, wiping a tear trickling down his weathered face. “To think I might lose him like that—well, it was more than I could handle. These people at Research, what they did to find my dog, I will never forget. Never. I saw some sunshine that day when they said Bear was doing fine. It was hope.”
Cook admits medical workers’ lives can be busy, stressful and emotionally taxing but that helping a patient beyond physical care is rewarding, too. “Situations like Lewis and Bear prove we make a difference in someone's life beyond the call of duty,” he says. “Reuniting two friends, by the sheer willingness of hospital employees to swiftly respond to not only a patient’s physical trauma, but also his spiritual well-being, was priceless for everyone involved.”
“We are so proud of employees who go not only the extra mile but way, way beyond their jobs to nurture patients,” says Kevin J. Hicks, chief executive officer, Research Medical Center. “Our commitment and dedication is to the whole person and the story of Lewis and Bear certainly exemplifies that.”
Thanks to human kindness, Lewis Gray has his most valuable possession back—the unconditional love of his canine companion. And a new measure of hope.