Lucas Parks is in need of a healing.
The slight 17-year-old with the soft Tennessee twang lies curled on a couch, his pale skin a startling contrast with his bright orange print pajamas. Lucas is spare with words. He suffers from a blood disease, and energy is at a premium. Doesn't matter, his actions speak for him.
Lucas drapes one arm around Willow, who snuggles quietly and contently against him. Lucas' hand caresses the top and sides of Willow's head. Except for her breathing, Willow remains motionless.
Lucas has spent time, in a way far too much time, getting to know Willow. Lucas is hospitalized at the National Institutes of Health trying to get well, at least well enough so he can go back to normal teen-age life in Crossville, Tenn.
Willow is helping.
Willow, unassuming, quiet, discriminating in whom she likes, lives in Federal Hill. She is 27 pounds, sleek as a low-slung, two-seater sports car yet gentle as a spring breeze.
Willow is a dog.
But not just any dog. According to the American Kennel Club, one of the nation's premiere canine organizations, she is the best in the country at what she does. In the AKC's first-ever "Awards for Canine Excellence" this fall, she took first honors in the "therapy dog" category for service dogs. That means 6-year-old Willow is a national champion healer.
"All our dogs are wonderful, but Willow is unique," says Holly C. Parker, a recreational therapist at the NIH who has worked with Willow about four years and nominated her for the award.
"She has done some very exceptional work," Parker says of the little whippet, who is mostly white with some black and flecks of brown.
Lucas Parks only knows he feels better when he is around Willow.
"I met Willow ...," Lucas looks up to the ceiling, searches his brain. "It's been about three years now."
Lucas has been sick a very long time, explains his father, Steve Parks. The teen's disease makes it hard for him to fight off infections.
"He's been battling this since he was 9 months old," the father says.
His life hasn't been all about hospitals and doctors and being connected to tubes and machinery, though. "He usually leads a pretty normal life," Steve Parks says. This time, though, the illness is taking a toll on the youth.
"This has been his worst spell," Parks says. "This time he has been in the hospital since Feb. 29."
Parks glances at his son and Willow. He is glad for anything or anyone that brings moments of joy to his son's life. Right now, Willow is doing just that.
"It brightens his day," he says of the quiet bonding going on between dog and boy. "It puts a smile on his face."
Willow makes the trip to the 13th West Patient Care Unit at the NIH to comfort patients like Lucas courtesy of her owner, Linda Solano.
The Baltimore woman volunteers her time with the National Capitol Therapy Dogs program, squeezing the visits in around her regular schedule. She is married and currently works at a needlepoint shop in Cross Keys. She has worked as a registered nurse and has sold real estate.
Willow's younger sibling, Jessie, is also a therapy dog and belongs to Solano. Jessie, whose personality is somewhat more exuberant than Willow's, is better in crowd settings, Solano says.
It was a horse, rather than a canine, that actually led Solano to get involved with the dog-therapy program. "When I had a horse, I used to work with the handicapped riding program," she says. That was when she was living in Columbia, about 15 years ago.
Willow came into her life - at the urging of a good friend - after Solano had moved to Federal Hill. "My friend was breeding dogs," Solano says. "She said, `Oh, you just have to take this puppy. She has to be with someone where I can see her.' "
Ever since she had given up her horse, Solano had found something lacking in her life. "I missed working with animals," she says. So she cast a curious eye at Willow, considered the possibilities and began searching for organizations where they could both be of use.
"I was looking for somewhere to volunteer," Solano says. "I called around and found out about animal therapy programs."
Willow was about 4 years old when Solano joined the National Capitol Dog Therapy organization. It was there Willow and Linda learned about training and testing.
"Aptitude and obedience," says Marlene Truedell, president of the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the dog therapy organization, listing the two important traits necessary for successful training.
The dog therapy organization uses training materials provided, in part, by the Delta Society, a national group with a mission of improving the health of humans through service and therapy dogs.
Service dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind, are trained to help disabled people have more independence. Therapy dogs, by contrast, are used to assist ill people in improving their healing.
When Willow visits the NIH each month, she sees about four patients.