Four on the Floor


by Rachel Hedstrom

Even for a girl named Hope, the situation seemed almost too bleak.

She had already braved so much in her few short years: three open-heart surgeries, two leg and foot surgeries, countless other medical procedures. And here she was again, this time with an appendix rupture that landed her in the hospital for three weeks. It seems too much for anyone, and this tiny girl with the big heart tried her best to not let it all get her down. But it did.

Help came in the form of a fourlegged friend. At the sound of a jingling chain, the light would come back into her eyes. Gracie is here. Moved to action, Hope would push the pain aside as she willed her tired body out of bed. She would put one foot in front of the other, wheeling her IV pole beside her, clutching it tightly with her tiny hands as she reached the hall to wait in anticipation.

Gracie, a golden retriever known for her signature hugs and sweet demeanor, is one of the pet therapy dogs that visit St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Hope looked forward to those visits; soft and sweet, the dogs brought with them no needles, no procedures, no expectations – just love. Hope cherished the visits from these four-legged friends whose canine care seemed to be as helpful as any medicine.

“Her whole face would light up,” remembers Kelly Dees, Hope’s mom. “In the beginning, she couldn’t move much, but she would manage to get up to see the dogs. She talked to them sweetly, petted them, and would get so excited, grinning from ear to ear. After they would leave, the mood would stay with her; it was a lasting effect. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated it.”

Having a Heart-to-Heart

Gary Price knows that despondent feeling well. After experiencing his own quintuple bypass, the 77-year-old retiree living in Sanford, Florida, wanted to bring comfort to others whose hearts were healing. In addition to volunteering with the Orlando Chapter of Mended Hearts, Gary brings his 11-year-old Shih Tzu, Prince, to bring comfort to people who need it most.

“I’m able to see heart patients and talk to them about my experience. I tell them I have heart disease, too, and 17 years ago had bypass surgery. I visit heart patients every week with Prince.”

Prince’s laid-back temperament made him a great candidate for a therapy dog. When Prince was almost a year old, he passed tests from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs and to become certified. He now visits hospitals and a daycare for children with special needs, bringing a welcome respite to everyone he meets.

“With a patient, I’ll bring a chair up next to the bed and put Prince on my lap. He puts his paws on the bed and his head right there so people can pet him,” Gary says.

Paws With Purpose

Judi Roberts, director of volunteer services at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, has 24 teams of therapy dogs and handlers on her roster. Each handler and dog is certified as a therapy team through Pet Partners or Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and each dog receives not only their own volunteer badge, but also their own trading card featuring their picture and key stats.

It’s a nice way for patients to remember these special visitors, Judi explains. They also serve as official acknowledgement of all the work that the handler and dog put in to make patients’ days just a little brighter.

“No one takes it lightly, because they all understand how important it is,” Judi says. From ensuring their pets are current on vaccinations to giving their pet baths within 24 hours of a visit to her facility to working with clinicians to ensure that infection control procedures and wishes of patients are being followed, therapy dog teams have a lot to manage.

“We are grateful that these volunteers and their pets do that for our patients,” Judi says.

Pet Partners, based in Bellevue, Washington, offers the nation’s first comprehensive, standardized training in animal-assisted activities and therapy for volunteers and healthcare professionals. The non-profit has more than 10,000 active volunteer human and animal teams across the U.S. and a handful of other countries.

All told, they provide more than three million visits a year to hospital patients, residents in nursing homes and other care facilities, library reading programs and much more. While a majority of the teams include a dog, other species can be certified if they meet the criteria. They include cats, rabbits, miniature horses, parrots, miniature pigs — even llamas and alpacas. The training and certification process focuses not only on safety for the people who receive the visits, but also on the welfare of the animal doing the visiting.

“A handler’s role is to advocate for the animals, make sure they’re safe while they’re visiting, and that their stress level isn’t too high,” says Elisabeth Van Every, marketing and strategic partnerships coordinator for Pet Partners. What patients get out of it most, she believes, is a calming presence that is simply there to provide what someone in pain often needs: love.

“Dogs provide a judgment-free presence that’s important for a lot of people. It’s friendly, it’s loving, it provides something nice to touch. Just being able to pet the animal and talk to them is a soothing thing. It’s that presence, that sense of being there and receiving affection with no expectation.”

Medicine for the Heart

There is more to this therapy than cold, wet noses and warm eyes, though. Studies show that interacting with animals can benefit humans in many ways and can be good for your heart on many levels.

“Scientific research demonstrates that the human-animal bond has a positive impact on human health, including cardiovascular disease, stress, blood pressure, sleep, depression and anxiety and more,” notes Dave Williams, M.D., emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer of Pet Partners.

“The one thing that a lot of people don’t really talk about is the anxiety level, especially of kids who live with congenital heart defects,” Hope’s mom adds.

“They’re expected to be brave all the time, and that’s unacceptable. Hope and kids like her can have anxiety, even post-traumatic stress. Imagine a calming presence that’s not there to do anything the kids don’t like. The dogs actually succeed when very few other things can. That calming presence is good for them — and my anxiety level dropped, too.”

From patients to parents, visitors and staff, a visit from a pet therapy team is welcome any day in the hospital, Judi says. “Our team members get enjoyment from seeing them, too. They work long shifts and sometimes it’s exactly what they needed.”

Gary Price echoes that sentiment, saying that Prince makes a beeline for the nurses first.

“It might be because of the treats they give him,” he admits, “but either way, they need a visit sometimes just as much as a patient does.”

Universal Language of Love

Is it possible that animals say things to us that are understood on a deeper level than any human language could put into words? If so, it’s a language Jade Fussell understood immediately.

Adopted from China when she was 3, Jade began receiving much-needed treatments for her congenital heart defects within a month of arriving in the U.S. Jade’s mom, Tara, remembers how spunky her daughter was despite her heart condition, being small for her age and being new to the language and culture.

Months of treatment followed — procedure after procedure — and eventually Jade lost her ability to tolerate food as well as people. She simply withdrew.

“Our really spunky, bubbly girl shut down,” Tara remembers. “She shut us out, shut everyone out. There were times she didn’t want to be touched and she would lie down and just cry.”

The therapy dogs, however, could bring Jade out of her shell when nothing else could. Jade connected immediately and deeply with them; their presence calmed her, enabling procedures to go much smoother. Touching the dog, stroking its back and being soft and gentle with the animal seemed to fill a need for Jade. She was agitated by the daily injections, feeding tubes and pumps require to sustain her, and she didn’t want to accept loving touches from her family. But petting the dog could immediately calm her.

The approach was so successful that Jade’s nurses and social work team recommended her family look into a service dog for her to call her own. Harvard, a golden retriever, soon became a member of her family. Jade’s family is eternally grateful for the therapy dogs and volunteers who helped get her through a very tough time in her life.

“To see that there was something that could bring the light back in her eyes — see a little more of our little girl coming back — was everything,” Tara says of the therapy dog visits. “We saw glimpses of who she was come back to us — and that was such a gift.”

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