Dr. Rob Garofalo was devastated. He’d built his medical and research career on helping young AIDS patients. Then he learned that he too was HIV-positive. The news came after he’d already survived kidney cancer and a breakup with his longtime partner.
At first, he told almost no one about his HIV status—not even his elderly mother, who sensed that her son was struggling mightily during a Christmas visit in 2010.
Garofalo, who heads the adolescent medicine division at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, recalls crying through much of the flight home, experiencing a catharsis that led him to an unexpected decision—he got a dog.
It was a Yorkshire terrier he named Fred. And Fred changed everything. “I had this little bundle of like, pure joy,” Garofalo said. “He made me re-engage with the world.”
The doctor, who’s helped save many AIDS patients, knows it sounds a little crazy that the companionship and simple needs of a pet could help him cope with his disease. “But I’m not exaggerating when I say that he saved my life,” said Garofalo, who’d considered suicide after his HIV diagnosis.
As his energy level grew, he started a charity, Fred Says, using his pooch’s image to raise money for programs that help HIV-positive teens. Garofalo began to realize that he was far from the only person with HIV who had been helped by a dog. And in that human-canine bond, he saw an opportunity to grow his charity’s reach.
He began a project called “When Dogs Heal,” with the help of a dog photographer named Jesse Freidin and a Chicago-based writer named Zach Stafford. The project tells the stories of HIV-positive people and their dogs in an exhibit that launched last week in Chicago and New York.
Participants whose images appear in the show include a young mother from Los Angeles who was born with HIV, a Chicago man who tested positive after he was gang raped, and an HIV-positive man in San Francisco who quit dealing drugs so he could provide a more stable life for himself and his newly adopted dog.