Georgia teen, facility dog share medical journey

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When he's working at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston with his handler, nurse case manager Shannon Luetkemeyer, by his side, Lancelot is all business.

And, when he's not, he's all dog.

"He's very mischievous, he's into everything," Luetkemeyer says. "He loves peanut butter, swimming, squirrels."

But it's pretty clear the 7-year old golden retriever's biggest love is the young patients at CHOA.

He's one of 13 facility dogs, taught by Canine Assistants, to work with pediatric patients.

"When you walk in the room, the kids kind of forget pain for a minute," Luetkemeyer says.  "And, you can just watch them as they pet the dog. They melt, he melts. and the mamas cry."

The dogs, considered part of the staff here, help Children's young patients and their parents cope with some pretty hard things, Luetkemeyer says.

"He's gone through many journeys with people," she says, tearing up.  "Some are good, some are not."

Zak Acquaire, 15, of Senoia, Georgia, began his journey here at Children's back in July of 2017, when he was rushed to Children's in severe abdominal pain.

"It was just all of a sudden extreme weight loss, his stomach was hurting," Dana Acquaire, his mother, says.

Almost overnight, Zak had dropped about 30 pounds from his already slight frame, and he was having trouble sleeping and digesting food.

"We got here and they were trying to do some tests to see exactly what was going on," his mother says.  "And they came back with Crohn's disease. Honestly, I didn't even know what Crohn's was. I had never heard of Crohn's disease."

That's when Zak met Lancelot.

"Lance, when he looks at you, you know he understands what you're going through," Dana Acquaire says.

Zak has a speech disorder known as apraxia that makes it hard for strangers to understand him. Yet, with Lancelot, he doesn't need words.

"Lancelot is my buddy," Zak says.

Zak needs a medication called Humera, his mom says. 

"They're big needles and he had to get 4, two in each thigh," Zak's mother says. "And, Lancelot, after the shots were over, Shannon couldn't get Lancelot to leave the room."

The dog seemed to sense Zak's anxiety.

"It was like Lance knew exactly what going to happen," his mother says.

Because Lancelot has been there. 

A year earlier, in August of 2016, Shannon Luetkemeyer had rushed Lancelot to a veterinary E-R, after recognizing some troubling signs he had gastrointestinal problems.

"I said, 'He is sick; something is wrong with him,'" she says.

"So they did an endoscopy and came out and said, 'He has Crohn's. You would have never thought, but he has Crohn's.'"

Now, a year later, the dog with Crohn's was helping the boy with Crohn's face his own pain.

"He's been poked enough, Zak has been poked enough," Luetkemeyer says. "I think he just knows Zack needs love."

Zak has been hospitalized five times since his diagnosis, and each time, Lancelot has visited with him and napped in his hospital bed.

Because Shannon Luetkemeyer has come to believe, maybe that is this dog's purpose: to love without limits, which, really, might be the best medicine of all.

"And as soon as we hit the door (of the hospital), his tail is wagging," she says. "He loves to go to work. He knows this is his purpose."

Since his diagnosis, Zak has needed many blood transfusions. Lancelot has been by his side through it all.