Furry vol­un­teers

How ther­apy dogs ease the ten­sion for pa­tients and fam­i­lies.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Pets - By LYNN THOMP­SON

DUR­ING a re­cent af­ter­noon shift change on the on­col­ogy floor at Over­lake Med­i­cal Cen­ter in Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton, the United States, the usual sus­pects crowded the hall­way: nurses, aides, vis­i­tors, pa­tients in wheel­chairs tow­ing IV poles.

But one vis­i­tor quickly at­tracted a cir­cle of ad­mir­ers: Viansa, a yel­low lab with soft ears and un­der­stand­ing eyes.

Viansa is part of a team of five cer­ti­fied ther­apy dogs who visit the hos­pi­tal weekly with their han­dlers to bring pa­tients a mea­sure of calm and re­as­sur­ance. Sev­eral hos­pi­tals in the re­gion, in­clud­ing Seat­tle Chil­dren’s and Swedish Med­i­cal Cen­ter, have added ther­apy dogs to their ranks of vol­un­teers.

The dogs lis­ten at­ten­tively as chil­dren read to them, lay a head on the shoul­der of the in­firm and ease the ten­sion in a room full of anx­ious fam­ily mem­bers.

Karen Keenan, Viansa’s han­dler and a nurse her­self, said that be­ing in the hos­pi­tal is of­ten a dif­fi­cult time in a per­son’s life, scary for both the pa­tient and the fam­ily. A dog can of­fer com­fort and un­con­di­tional love.

She re­called a past visit to a hos­pi­tal room.

“One fam­ily was sur­round­ing the dy­ing pa­tient. Viansa went from per­son to per­son. They were lov­ing on her, cry­ing,” she said.

Viansa was trained as a puppy to be a Guide Dog for the Blind, but she had a spot on her own eye that vet­eri­nar­i­ans wor­ried would be­come a cataract. A blind dog couldn’t lead the blind, Keenan said, but her tem­per­a­ment – easy­go­ing and well-be­haved – made her a per­fect ther­apy dog.

Cer­ti­fied and trained

To be­come part of Over­lake’s dog-ther­apy team, a dog must be at least a year old, be cer­ti­fied as a ther­apy dog, and un­dergo ad­di­tional train­ing in hos­pi­tal pro­ce­dures and pro­to­col.

Brenda Ep­stein, Over­lake’s re­source spe­cial­ist, said the dogs have to have ex­cel­lent be­hav­ior, obey com­mands and re­main calm in the pres­ence of noise and sud­den move­ments.

It might seem coun­ter­in­tu­itive to in­tro­duce a dog into a hos­pi­tal’s ster­ile en­vi­ron­ment, but Ep­stein said the dogs are bathed and brushed be­fore they ar­rive for their shift. And the han­dlers them­selves use hand sani­tiser both be­fore and af­ter en­ter­ing a pa­tient’s room. She notes that the dogs can’t visit iso­la­tion rooms, where the risk of in­fec­tion is high.

Each dog that com­pletes the hos­pi­tal train­ing re­ceives a yel­low ban­danna and an Over­lake photo ID badge.

“I put on my clothes (an Over­lake polo shirt and khaki slacks), she puts on her scarf, and she knows we’re go­ing to work,” said Keenan, who noted that Viansa is a for­mer Over­lake Vol­un­teer of the Month.

Truitt, a black and white sheltie, di­vides his time be­tween Over­lake, the Swedish Med­i­cal Cen­ter Is­saquah Cam­pus and sev­eral nurs­ing homes on the East­side. His han­dler, Lau­rie Wil­son, said she loves pets and had ex­pe­ri­enced the joy they could bring.

“I knew how much they helped me, calm­ing me, bring­ing a smile to my face,” Wil­son said.

She re­called a hos­pi­tal shift sev­eral years ago at Over­lake when a nurse asked if she and Truitt could visit one more room. When they walked in, Wil­son said the man’s eyes were half-closed and he was ly­ing quite still. She put a towel on the bed be­side him and placed Truitt on the towel.

“The man started to stroke him, say­ing, ‘Nice dog. Good boy.’ And then, ‘You’re my an­gel, you and your dog.’” Af­ter the visit, Wil­son led Truitt from the room, but the dog dug in his heels and wouldn’t go be­yond the door. Wil­son said he kept look­ing back, as if he didn’t want to leave the man’s side.

Al­li­son Moll­ner, who han­dles Char­lie, a three-year-old mini Aus­tralian labradoo­dle, re­called a sim­i­lar visit the pre­vi­ous week to an older man on the floor for heart pa­tients. His sight was poor, and his phys­i­cal con­di­tion seemed frag­ile, so she held Char­lie in her lap and guided the man’s hand to the dog.

Af­ter a minute, the man asked, “What kind of song would Char­lie like?” He then

started singing in a beau­ti­ful voice from a reper­toire of bar­ber­shop-quar­tet songs. A vis­i­tor ar­rived, an­other quar­tet mem­ber, and to­gether the men har­monised on an­other song.

“I don’t know if we would have had that mo­ment if I hadn’t had Char­lie,” Moll­ner said.

Keenan, lead­ing Viansa through the Over­lake halls on her leash, said that a non­ver­bal pa­tient will get happy at the sight of a dog. A crabby pa­tient will cheer up, mak­ing the pa­tient more co­op­er­a­tive with hos­pi­tal staff. One charge nurse wasn’t into dogs, Keenan said. Now she stashes treats in her bot­tom drawer.

‘Made my day’

Dur­ing the rounds on the on­col­ogy floor, an older male pa­tient, De­witt Thorg­er­son, said he’d been look­ing for­ward to Viansa’s visit. He’d been in the hos­pi­tal more than a month.

“If she didn’t come, I’d want to know why,” said Thorge­son, lean­ing so far for­ward in the chair be­side his hos­pi­tal bed to pet the dog that he set off an alarm. Viansa moved in closer so Thorge­son didn’t have to reach so far. Keenan slipped the man dog treats so Thorge­son could re­ward Viansa for sit­ting and shak­ing hands.

Across the hall, pa­tient Kathy Barnes got one look at the dog in the door­way and thumped her palm against her heart. From her hos­pi­tal bed, she called, “C’mere, baby. Soft, beau­ti­ful girl.”

Barnes re­moved the oxy­gen tubes from her nose so she could nuz­zle with Viansa. They talked for a while, Barnes face above her hos­pi­tal gown was bright and an­i­mated. She called to her hus­band in the hall, so he could meet the dog, too.

“They do won­der­ful things for the spirit,” she said. “She made my whole day.” – The Seat­tle Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

— Pho­tos: TNS

Over­lake Med­i­cal Cen­ter pa­tient Barnes talks with Keenan and her adorable ther­apy dog, Viansa, a six-year-old yel­low lab, in her hos­pi­tal room in Belle­vue, Wash­ing­ton. Ac­cord­ing to Keenan, the hos­pi­tal pa­tients of­ten feel hap­pi­ness and re­lief dur­ing Viansa’s vis­its.

Char­lie, three, pro­vides as­sis­tance to owner Al­li­son Moll­ner as a ser­vice dog.

Lau­rie Wil­son and her Sheltie ther­apy dog, Truitt.

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