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Healing Power of Dogs for the HIV Positive Focus of New Boystown Project

By Serena Dai | May 20, 2014 7:14am
 A new book project by nonprofit Fred Says focuses on portraits of HIV positive people with their dogs. Animals can empower people with chronic diseases and help them handle their diagnoses, experts say.
When Dogs Heal
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BOYSTOWN — The story of how Joe Varisco got his furry white dog Pancakes was fateful and "Disney-esque," he said.

It was a cold, rainy evening in October 2012. When Varisco exited the bus on his home to Logan Square, the pup came right up to him and started following him to his abode.

Varisco, his partner and his sister spent weeks trying to find an owner to no avail. Pancakes was theirs.

And when Varisco, 29, was diagnosed with HIV just two months later, it was Pancakes who helped him through some tough times.

"She was always there waiting for me when I went home, ready to cuddle up at the end of the night," Varisco said. "That was a huge comfort to me. That was one of the first experiences in helping me get used to living life as a positive."

Serena Dai chats about an upcoming event that aims to focus attention on the comfort pets bring to patients of many diseases:

Varisco is not the only person with a chronic disease to take comfort in an animal. Many people adopt a dog after being diagnosed as HIV positive for social support and to decrease stress, said Zach Stafford, spokesman for Fred Says, a Chicago nonprofit for HIV-positive teens.

It's that relationship that Fred Says — a charity started after local doctor Rob Garofalo found solace in his Yorkie, Fred, after being diagnosed with cancer and HIV — plans on highlighting in a new portrait project.

Next month, pet photographer Jesse Freidin, who's known for "The Doggie Gaga" project, will taking photos of Varisco and other HIV-positive people with their pets for a book telling their stories.

Any HIV-positive person with a dog interested in being a part of the "When Dogs Heal" project is encouraged to contact Stafford at zstafford@luriechildrens.org.

Despite support groups and family help, all the new information about being HIV positive was still a lot to handle for Varisco, he said. Just being with Pancakes helped him absorb information better, he said.

"It was as though she understood there was a lot I was going through emotionally," Varisco said. "To me, it was a symbol. I don't need to answer any questions to her. ... I could just be myself. She was fine with that."

(Varisco, now at an undetectable level of HIV, works to create a modern-day narrative of living with HIV with a performance piece called "Queer, Ill & Okay" with his production company JRV Majesty Productions.)

In the past, some doctors discouraged patients with immunodeficiency disorders from having pets, for fear that certain diseases would easily pass from animal to human, said Dr. Natalie Marks, a veterinarian at Blum Animal Hospital in Lakeview.

But keeping both the vet and human physician in the loop can keep patients safe and greatly benefit both human and animal, Marks said.

Many of her clients' owners have come in with a chronic disease and say they suffer from severe depression after their diagnosis. The responsibility of a pet "made a world of difference" for many owners, who were forced to accept the diagnosis, move forward and make plans.

"Having that human-animal bond really makes a difference," she said. "It helps to have something to look forward to."

Being diagnosed with HIV is not the same as it was years ago. Old narratives about it being a near-death sentence are no longer true, and the Fred Says book aims to show people with HIV "in an empowering way," Stafford said.

Profits from the book and events will be donated to Fred Says.

"We want to show these people thriving and surviving," Stafford said, "and surviving with animals."

Anybody with a pet can get their portrait taken by pet photographer Jesse Freidin from noon-3 p.m. June 14 at Progress Bar, 3359 N. Halsted St., for $25. Others can attend the event for $15. People who are HIV positive and have dogs can be photographed at the closed-studio portraits by emailing zstafford@luriechildrens.org.