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Dogs steal the show in pet therapy program

by Dawn Brazell
Public Relations

The name of the dog and the breed differ from room to room, though the stories of healing remain the same.

As Wofford college sophomore Natalie Hahn waits to get discharged after six days in the hospital, she chats with volunteer Sally Jacob, Ph.D., and her pet therapy dog, Buttercup. Hahn absent-mindedly strokes Buttercup's head and talks about Hattie, her Boston terrier, who's at home. When Hahn got her tumor removed, both of her dogs knew. They came over and rested their heads over her incision.

"Hattie knew she couldn't be rough with me," said Hahn, who adds that she no longer makes any plans, but takes life one day at a time.

Patient Natalie Hahn pets Buttercup, being held by owner, Sally Jacob.

Having therapy dogs in a hospital is an awesome idea. When these guys come around, it's like a little taste of home."
In a room a couple of floors away, James Bass feels the same. Having just had a massive stroke, he can't say much but he's perfectly able to stroke Buttercup as the family makes jokes about her Yoda ears.

"I'm a rock star, too," he said, as he allows a photo to be taken of him and Buttercup. His daughter, Vicky Bass Coker, who insisted on the visit, gets tears in her eyes. She tells the story of how his dog stayed with him after his stroke when he was home alone and how the faithful pet refused to leave his side. A nurturing sort, she asks Jacob to take Buttercup down the hallway to visit a young patient who has a broken neck from an accident.

"I just love seeing the smiles on the patients' faces. It's like a light bulb that goes off. It's a glimpse of hope and happiness. It's a connection."

It's a healing connection for many patients, staff, employees and the dog handlers who volunteer the two to three hours a week to bring in their dogs.

Charlie's whole body wags when he makes his visits.

MUSC has two pet therapy programs, one in adult volunteer services and the other in the Children's Hospital. Both report high patient satisfaction and a desire to grow the programs so that patients and staff can have more access to the services.

Children receive cards from the dogs who visit them.

Jacob, who is a retired psychologist, started volunteering in November. "She sat for her badge, and I sat for mine," she said of the identification badges they both wear to be able to make the rounds in the hospital.

"I like that it's something we can do together. As soon as she puts on this collar, she knows it's a work day."

Jacob said she remembers one patient who looked as if every bone in her body was broken. "She started crying when she saw her. Buttercup kissed her. When she saw her later, she told her 'Buttercup, you came when I needed you most and you kissed me.' It seems hard to believe that something this small would make such a difference, but it does."

Volunteer Jane Farkas agrees. She tours around with Sophie, a Portuguese water dog, at Ashley River Tower, where the employees know the pair. The retired nurse said Sophie loves getting pets for two hours. "Who wouldn't like that? You can see the patients' blood pressure lower on the monitors as they pet the dog. It is just so great to see people smile and laugh. Patients like it. Sophie loves it."

Jane Farkas tours Ashley River Tower with Sophie.

Farkas said she's seen patients respond to the dogs when they haven't responded to anything else. Sophie knows when people aren't feeling well or when they are in a bad mood. She recalls a young depressed patient who refused to talk to anyone. She brought Sophie in to see if it would help. "It was the first time she smiled or laughed."

Other handlers report the same.

Helen Schroer, R.N., who works part time at MUSC, said she loves volunteering. It helps her do her job better. Her dog, Nutmeg, is a mixed lab, a gentle soul with warm, brown eyes. "She's just a big lover. She's been a blessing to me, and it's great to share her with other people. This is such a joy," she said of doing pet therapy. "It's what I wish my everyday job could be. It's great to put smiles on people's faces. I can just spend time with the patients without worrying about a time schedule. It gets their minds off their illness or their surgery coming up."

Nutmeg greets employee Larry Lighthall. 

Schroer said she hopes more MUSC employees and staff will become involved with the program. It helps her to be more in touch with ways to make connections with patients and avoid getting too caught up in the bureaucracy and busyness of the job. She said she loves how it helps the nursing staff as well.

Katy Kuder, manager of volunteer and guest services, said she sees how much impact pet therapy has on patients and employees and wants to expand the program. She plans to get cards printed, similar to what the handlers give out in the Children's Hospital, and has set up a way people can virtually adopt a dog online with proceeds funding the cards.

She also wants staff as well as patients to be able to request visits with the dogs. "It calms staff if they're having a very stressful day. The staff come running every time there is dog on the floor. It's a really good thing for them. Everyone needs a little therapy every now and then."

The dogs have extensive training and have to be registered to be in the pet therapy program. They have six dogs with a wide range of sizes and breeds. Dog request forms are on every clinical unit and should be faxed to her office by 9 a.m.

"We are the ones who assist the staff in doing those things that make us a hospital of choice. Our volunteers are trained to go out and be focused on that we want to be recommended as a hospital. Everything you do and every one of your encounters needs to be geared toward that complete satisfaction that not only did we meet their expectations, but that we far exceeded them."

Kuder said they always are looking for new volunteers, who are asked to give 100 hours in a calendar year, and dogs who have good temperaments and enjoy being around people. "I would love to have the most elite pet therapy program we can have. Our pet therapy lends to a better patient experience."

Emily Wallace, program specialist with the Children's Hospital Volunteer Services, said children respond well to pet therapy. Many children have always wanted a dog, but their parents haven't allowed it, so it's a treat. They have three dog parades a year that always are hits. They have 12 teams who serve the Children's Hospital, nine on a regular schedule. There are seven teams that go to the Institute of Psychiatry, six to the STAR (Stabilization, Treatment, Assesssment, Reintegration) Ladson program and one to Rutledge Tower.

Wallace, who recently became a volunteer herself, said they would love to have dogs there seven days a week, multiple times daily if they could. Sometimes medical procedures keep children from being able to visit with the dogs, who do two-hour shifts and may be gone by the time a child returns from a procedure.

That's one reason volunteer Sharon Field, a retired hospice nurse, loves to go into the atrium. It's a way she can visit with many children at once and her Schoodle, Scamp, can show off her tricks. Scamp rolls around on the floor making a little growling noise. "That's what I call her trash talking."

Patients enjoy Scamp showing off her tricks with her handler Sharon Field.

Field gets her to settle down and then take a bow and perform other tricks. Patients Claire Conner and Fallyn Hendrix smile as they watch every move. "She's sassy, isn't she?" Field asks, and they nod vigorously.

Field knows that sassiness can get children to do things, such as physical therapy, that they otherwise might not have the motivation to perform. It also can get responses out of children with special needs whom therapists have been unable to reach through traditional means. She and Scamp assess each case and see how they best can help. She loves the calming effects of the dogs on children at STAR Ladson and the Institute of Psychiatry.

Field said she'd recommend the volunteer job to others. One reason is that she enjoys spending the time with Scamp.

But, it goes deeper than that.

"It's sort of like a mission for me to bring some kind of support and comfort to the families and children here. I pray on the way here that I can say the right thing. I just love doing it. Sometimes I think I get more out of it than they do."

Want to Volunteer?
For more information, to make a donation or find out about volunteering, contact Katy Kuder in volunteer and guest services at 792-0858 or For information on the pet therapy program in the Children's Hospital, contact Emily Wallace in volunteer and guest services at 792-8190 or


Friday, Oct. 5, 2012

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