Baker and I are training to become registered to do pet therapy at our local hospital. As we have studied for the test, we have learned there is a lot more to pet therapy than meets the eye! I recently had the opportunity to “shadow” some pet therapy teams as they visited the Children’s Hospital. Of course, Baker is not allowed in the hospital until he has passed the test, which we hope to take soon. For me, this visit was a chance to measure my own emotions when visiting patients. “Our volunteers love visiting the kids, but it’s not all fun and games,” the pet therapy coordinator had warned.
On this particular morning, four pet therapy teams were scheduled to visit the pediatric inpatient unit. We met in the hospital lobby, where the dogs milled around and politely sniffed each other. They were Sammy, a beautiful, fluffy golden retriever; Chessie, a PBGV who was born blind, but doesn’t let that stop her; Jelly, a handsome husky-german shepherd mix; and Luther, a cute chihuahua. Luther has a closet full of costumes, and was wearing his Superman cape for the occasion. Although a few visitors in the lobby wanted to pet the dogs, they weren’t allowed, to prevent the dogs from carrying germs up to the unit where some of the children have weak immune systems. Per the requirements, all of the dogs had been bathed within a day of the visit.
We paraded down a long hall and up the elevator to the children’s wing. Then, we were buzzed into the unit, which in spite of being a hospital is bright and cheerful. A beautiful aquarium sits by the nurses station; children’s art work decorates the walls; and there is a large activity room where specially trained staff work with the kids on art and other therapy projects.
In addition to the pet partner teams, the pet therapy program has a “leash-less” volunteer who coordinates the scheduled visits. Her job is to get a list from the nursing staff of patients who want a pet therapy visit that day, and walk us room to room. The visits are authorized by doctor’s orders for each patient. On this particular morning all beds in the unit were full, and we had a long list of patients to visit during our hour on the floor. The leash-less coordinator also provides a clean sheet to spread on the bed, if the child wants the dog to get on its bed. When the visit is finished, the leash-less coordinator folds the sheet and puts it in the laundry hamper. Everyone washes their hands frequently, using the hand sanitizer bottle on the wall.
“I just had two infusions!” a cute little girl in a pink skirt announced to us. She was eager to pet the dogs, as her haggard parents looked on and smiled. I think the dogs bring as much relief to the parents as to the kids. How difficult it must be to spend days and nights on end in a hospital room with your seriously ill child. The therapy dogs provide a few moments of relief and normalcy.
In another room, a small boy undergoing neurological tests had his head swathed in tape, with a ponytail of wires from the electrodes coming out the back of his neck. According to his mother, prior to our visit he had been very agitated and was trying to tear the wires, but when Luther the chihuahua snuggled next to him, he calmed down and focused on showing Luther his toys.
Luther seemed to know exactly what each patient needed. In the next room, the patient was a teenage girl who had been in a serious car accident. Luther settled quietly next to her and lay there as she stroked him.
Back in the hallway, a tall teenage boy recovering from knee surgery walked Jelly down the hall, holding the extra leash that Paul, Jelly’s handler, had brought for this purpose. For safety reasons the dogs are not allowed off their leashes. At the other end, a small, almost bald-headed girl attached to an IV pole sat in the hall and cuddled with Chessie as her father looked on.
The sound of the lunch carts rolling down the hall signaled that our time was up. As we left the floor, I noticed a couple standing outside a room, just hugging each other wordlessly, trying to contain their grief at their world turned upside down. I pray for the healing of all these children. I was honored to play a small part in brightening their day, if only for a moment.