|Harley at the Nursing Home
By Louise Vest
Special to Bay Weekly
Raphael Jurkovic and Harley, a 130-pound Harlequin Great Dane, visit the patients at Annapolis Rehabilitation and Nursing Home as volunteers with Pets on Wheels.
Harley's eyes focus on her.
The woman's eyes focus on nothing. She spends her life levitating in an impoverished land formed by her illness.
But Harley moves closer, and remnants of life marshal themselves into action as his commanding presence pulls the woman up noiselessly, through murky layers.
She comes to the surface smiling.
Even as Harley Davidson, the hulking 130-pound Harlequin Great Dane, leaves her nursing home room after his visit, she is still in the moment of a bright, Sunday morning. That other land has not yet repatriated her.
"She's got Alzheimer's and doesn't usually respond, but she responds to Harley," explains Harley's owner, Raphael Jurkovic, 32, about the patient. At this Annapolis Rehabilitation and Nursing Home, he knows most of the people and their problems.
As a member of Pets on Wheels, he's been bringing Harley here and to the local hospital for a year now, usually on Sundays. Jurkovic lives only 10 minutes away from the center, which he tries to visit once a week.
He read about the program and decided to give it a try. Harley had to go through a social and medical evaluation, but it was Jurkovic, a French émigré, who needed his shots updated, receiving additional immunizations that weren't required in his home country.
As Jurkovic enters the next room, announcing "Pets on Wheels," he spies a woman eating in bed. "Oh, you have ice cream," he says, "Is that good?"
The frail woman smiles a chocolate-flavored elfin grin and her head of white hair nods in the affirmative, but she does not speak.
As Harley ambles across the room, the woman's blue eyes devour the incongruous sight of a hulking beast trespassing through her world of pills and pillows. Harley comes to her bedside and sniffs her hand as if to say, "No, you didn't eat your ice cream too fast. I'm Harley and I'm real." She pats his head as Jurkovic rearranges her pillow so she can eat her ice cream more comfortably.
Meanwhile, another woman in the room sits in a corner chair mumbling to herself, but when Harley approaches she perks up and says quite clearly, "Ah, he's a pretty dog."
In the next room a blind woman sits in a sun-filled room and strokes Harley's back as she stares into space and says, "You know my father used to have bird dogs. Oh, he was a great hunter." Jurkovic says she is one of the few people there who comment about his French accent. It's a pleasant accent, not too heavy, even though he's only been in the United States since 1995.
For four years, Jurkovic trained as an executive chef in France, at The Lycee, and upon his arrival here worked as a chef in an Annapolis restaurant. He's also been a chef in London and Switzerland and in the French army, when he served his mandatory military stint. He now teaches French cuisine at the School of France in D.C. and at Anne Arundel Community College. He also caters and hopes to start his own crepe business.
Continuing his rounds, the gentle giant Harley leads the way, padding into another room as a thin man with thick latitude lines across his brown brow silently watches the dog's approach.
Jurkovic tells the man that he likes his yellow, suede-looking P.J.s.
At the compliment, the man's eyes brighten and Jurkovic asks, "Do you have family coming today?"
"No," says the man sitting in the very still room.
"Then we are your family today," says Jurkovic.
Back in the hall, Jurkovic notes that some who live in the nursing home never have family visit.
"I feel good to do this. It's something in a day when nothing happens, no one comes to see them. I can give them a few moments. Sometimes it makes me sad, but it also makes me happy. I love people and especially senior citizens. I lost my grandmother, who was 86. She raised me," the young man says.
The sight of Harley calls forth memories from a woman sitting on her neatly made bed. "I probably raised 17 dogs in my lifetime, my kids' dogs! You know, they bring them home and swear they'll starve if we don't take them in. We had a dog that would lay on the floor and let the kids nap on him, and he wouldn't move until the child woke up."
Harley is an icebreaker, making it easier for his master to visit with so many strangers.
A group at the end of the hall spies the visitors and calls to Harley. If therapy on four legs is an anomaly here, so is Jurkovic and his long, youthful legs among the cane and wheelchair traffic. The nurses and patients semi-circle around Harley curiously.
"Look, he has his ears up, you can tell he's listening," says one.
"He's a big boy, and kind and gentle he is," says another.
"He was here last week, but I don't remember his name," says a third.
In the sunroom sit two men, one a retired farmer who once grew tobacco, wheat and corn. He quickly scans Harley and announces in Jurkovic's direction, "I wouldn't have that dog if you gave him to me!"
Harley's eyes, awash in tolerance, stare back at the farmer who continues: "I had huntin' dogs."
In a room down the hall, a woman in a wheelchair reminisces after petting Harley. "My husband and I raised Border collies. They meant a lot to me."
She strokes Harley contemplatively. "We lost our dogs, but there is a time," she says.
In sync with her philosophizing, Jurkovic replies, "Yes, there is a time for everything."
"He minds you," she says. "He wants to please you. He loves you and he knows he's loved. I wish I did," she says matter-of-factly.