Therapy dogs help badly burned Georgia Guardsman find hope

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When Jaylen Richardson and his service dog Hakon come back the Grady Burn Center in Downtown Atlanta, it's like coming home.

"Because no one expected me to make it out of the accident," Richardson says.

The story of what this 22-year old Georgia Army National Guardsman endured,

a near-fatal August 2016 motorcycle wreck, 3rd-degree burns on 60 percent of his body, 34 surgeries, is hard to fathom, much less survive.

Jaylen Richardson was shutting down; life had become too painful.

"I didn't want the window shades up," he says.  "I didn't want the TV on. I didn't really want to be bothered,"

"When I first got the call about Jalen, the words that were used were 'failure to thrive,'" Michele Pirkle, Grady's Executive Director of Patient and Family Experience, remembers.

Jaylen had dropped from 170 pounds before his accident to 113 pounds.

Pirkle knew if they didn't do something, quickly, they would lose him. 

So, she turned to Mary Webb and her therapy dog Peaches,

and Elaine Miller and Honey Duke,

The therapy dogs are now regulars on the burn unit.  But back then, they needed special permission to visit Jaylen. And they went right to him, jumping up on the side of his hospital bed.

"Seeing them come in, they were just always excited," Richardson says.  "You know, you can't fake that. The dog doesn't fake their emotions."

"And when we left, the nurses said, 'This is the first time we've seen him smile in months,'" Pirkle says.

So the dogs began coming back.

"It made me want to move. It made me want to get up," Richardson says.

The transformation was remarkable, staff members say.

"And I watched, as, slowly but surely, these two dogs began to literally save this young man's life.  And he began to engage in his therapy, and he began to smile, and he began to talk."

That's when the Grady Burn Center staff realized Jaylen needed his own dog, a service dog.

So, they found "Animal's Deserve Better's Paws for Life," program.

They matched him with Hakon, a 1-year old Native American Indian dog.

"When I actually saw him come in the room. I was completely overwhelmed," Richardson remembers.

"I hadn't walked in 7 plus months," Richardson says.  "And I took my first steps with him.  It was like every step I took, he took with me.  He was there, right next to me."

Today, the two are not just walking, they're running together.

Now back with his National Guard unit, it's pretty clear, Jaylen Richardson is soldiering on.

"I owe those dogs everything, especially my joy," he says, his smile wide open.