In patient’s darkest hour, Caring Canine Lily was a bright light

When Becca Smelser was facing her toughest battle, Lily, one of Mayo Clinic's Caring Canines, brought a smile to her face. Becca shares how meeting the 7-year-old English yellow Labrador gave her hope that she could overcome physical and mental obstacles.  

When Becca Smelser woke up on Feb. 19, 2019, she felt in her heart that she was dying.

For most of her life, Becca struggled with mental health issues and an eating disorder, and she was in the middle of the worst relapse of her life — one that felt too big to overcome.

"I wasn't eating at all. I don't even know if I was drinking water," Becca says.

Becca's body became weak, and she collapsed several times, landing her in Mayo Clinic's Emergency Department.

She had lost hope that she would get better. She knew she wouldn't accept treatment unless she was forced to.

She drove to a highway overpass and waited for the police to arrive. Her intention was to tell them, "You force me to get treatment, or I'm going to jump," but when the state trooper arrived, she fell.

"I don't know if I panicked or what happened," Becca says. "I did not jump, though the intention was there."

Becca sustained serious injuries to her feet, legs and face from the fall. She was transported to Mayo Clinic's trauma unit, where she had a tracheostomy and a feeding tube placed, and she underwent multiple extensive surgeries.

About five days later, Becca started to regain consciousness.

An unexpected visitor ignites hope

After two weeks in the ICU, Becca was transferred to the maxillofacial unit, where she remembers finally being able to speak but not wanting to. That is, until a surprise visit from a special four-legged canine, Lily, and her handler, Charlie Waite.

"I was so traumatized and in such a deep depression, feeling like I needed help for one thing, and now my life just got a million times more difficult; my body just got a million times more broken," Becca says.

"I was quiet, depressed and despondent. I did not want to engage in life. I did not want to engage in treatment. I didn't see the point," Becca says. "I knew that I was going to have an incredibly long journey and recovery ahead of me, and I didn't want any part of it. I was angry."

Becca and Lily.

That was her state of mind when she met Lily and Charlie.

While much of Becca's time in the hospital is cloudy because of the injuries she sustained to her brain, she clearly recalls her visit from the 7-year-old English yellow Labrador clearly.

"My nurse knocked on my door and said there is someone here who wants to see you," Becca says. "I didn't know who would show up unexpectedly. I had also expressed to my family that I didn't want any visitors. I was very self-conscious about my face and all the large wounds that I had."

Becca was caught off guard, but in a good way, when she looked up and saw Lily and Charlie walk through the door.

For the first time in months, she smiled.

Becca, who used to be a veterinary technician, loves animals, and Lily, who Charlie describes as confident, trusting and in tune with people's emotions, loves everyone.

"I don't remember what Charlie said to me or what I said to him, but I do remember that he helped Lily get up on the bed with me, and she just laid with me," Becca says.

In that moment, something amazing happened — a sense of peace and calmness washed over Becca.

"It was like everything was OK," Becca says. "I wasn't afraid. I wasn't sad. I wasn't angry. I was just present."

Lily's presence was so calming. She helped me remember the life I had before I got sick and that there was life to get back to.

Becca Smelser

Lily fell asleep as Becca petted her new friend for nearly an hour.

"Lily's presence was so calming. She helped me remember the life I had before I got sick and that there was life to get back to," Becca says.

For the first time in a long time, Becca had hope — just a flicker, but she clung to that feeling.

Progress, challenges and another pivotal moment in Becca's journey

After meeting Charlie and Lily, Becca says there was a change in her.

"It was a slow turn, but I wanted to be more of an active participant in my treatment. There was still a lot of fear, reluctance and resistance, but there was something else in there, too," Becca says. "I was starting to realize I could and would get better."

From the maxillofacial unit, Becca was transferred to a psychiatric unit and then to a three-month mental health program. During that time, she began eating on her own and walking again. Her mental health also improved.

However, when that program ended, she was not well enough to return home, so she checked into an adult foster care home instead. There, her suicidal thoughts returned.

"I thought, 'How can I be back here after everything I just went through?'" Becca says.

Then, during an overnight stay in Mayo Clinic's Emergency Department, Becca says she heard a voice speak into her soul.

The voice, which she believes was God speaking to her, said: "If you continue to make decisions from a place of fear, you will always end up right back here."

At that moment, she says she decided she would do whatever needed to be done to get better, regardless of whether it scared her.

"From then on, something has been different," Becca says. "There was a surrender to God that made all the difference."

Becca was sent from the Emergency Department to an inpatient mental health facility in Albert Lea.

"I was so compliant there. I was a completely different person, and after just a couple of weeks, I went home to live with my mom in Winona," Becca says.

There was still a lot of fear, reluctance and resistance, but there was something else in there, too. I was starting to realize I could and would get better.

Becca Smelser

Over the last five years, Becca has returned to Mayo Clinic for several jaw surgeries, sinus surgery and to have prosthetic teeth placed. These procedures have improved her quality of life and confidence.

She also started being much more proactive with her mental health, attending therapy, keeping up with her medication, and leaning into her faith and friend group.  

"I plugged myself back into my church and into my faith. I built a strong community around me. For the first time in my life, I have friends. I have people I can lean on when I need to, and I'm doing that," Becca says.

Becca currently lives on her own and says she has not been suicidal in years.

"That 'I don't care' attitude I used to have about my mental health and well-being — I don't have that anymore," Becca says. "Suicide is not an option for me anymore."

Becca reunites with her favorite Caring Canine team years after injury

On Dec. 14, 2023, Becca contacted Whitney Romine, an animal-assisted services coordinator at Mayo Clinic, requesting to see Lily and Charlie again.

She wanted to thank Charlie and show him she was doing better, partly because he and Lily set her on the right path.

"I wanted to express how thankful I was for Charlie and Lily because their visit was pivotal for me. That was when things started to shift for me," Becca says. "I also wanted to show Charlie he started something big for me. I've come far since then, and he had a part in that."

On Jan. 4, 2024, nearly five years after her accident, Becca met Charlie and Lily again under better circumstances.

During their reunion, Becca gave Charlie a letter that said:

Charlie, when you walked into my hospital room nearly five years ago, you couldn't have known the battle I was facing or the utter devastation I was feeling. But the moment I saw you and Lily, all of that vanished. For one brief moment, I felt alive again. You and Lily were a beautiful light in the darkest time of my life. I will never forget the peace your presence brought me. With all of my heart, I thank you for your kindness, love and all that you do for those who are experiencing such difficult times. May God bless you as you have blessed so many.

Love, Becca

"I can't read the letter without getting teary-eyed," Charlie says. "It meant so much to me."

Charlie says Becca's story is one of many that demonstrate how important the Caring Canine program is to Mayo Clinic's patients and their families, as well as staff.

It is a privilege to do this. There is nowhere else in my life that I go and hear, 'Wow, this made my day' and 'God bless you,' and I will hear that almost every time I visit patients and their families.

Charlie Waite

"It is a privilege to do this. There is nowhere else in my life that I go and hear, 'Wow, this made my day' and 'God bless you,' and I will hear that almost every time I visit patients and their families," Charlie says.

"There is something soothing about a visit from a dog that reminds people that they matter and that there is life outside of the hospital and beyond illness," he says.