CarolinaEast dogs comfort hospital patients -- and visitors ... and staff -- OK, just about everybody
Sometimes healing comes in the form of a warm, firm paw.
CarolinaEast Medical Center has embraced that philosophy in the form of its Thera-Paws program — a collection of eight shaggy, four-footed beasts who roam the halls and share their faultless canine love with patients and staff.
The dogs, a mixture of larger breeds such as golden retrievers and a few smaller dogs such as a long-haired Chihuahua named Molly, spent 476 hours in 2016 — that’s 3,332 hours in dog-hours — visiting patients throughout the hospital.
The dogs don’t go into sterile areas such as operating rooms, nor do they visit intensive care where infections can be of greater concern.
Therapy manager Amy Burdulis said that “Thera-Paws therapy” is introduced only to patients who wish to take part, and that the dogs are carefully watched by their owner/handlers.
And these are educated dogs. To take part, a Thera-Paw dog must be a graduate of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen training, along with passing an online test with a 100, given on the hospital’s website.
They are up-to-date with all vaccinations and must be groomed within 24 hours of every visit.
While they are not forced on anyone, Burdulis said she has never seen anyone refuse.
Public relations director Megan McGarvey quoted CEO Ray Leggett as saying “you can have the oldest and most cantankerous patient, and we walk in with these dogs and they just melt.”
So how does a dog provide therapy? Mostly through touch and simple interaction.
It isn’t hard to find stories online about the healing that comes from human-animal interaction.
A National Public Radio article by Julie Rovner notes that interacting with dogs increases people’s oxytocin level. Rebecca Johnson, of the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction, is quoted in the same article: “That’s very special for us. Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting … (and) has some powerful effects for us in the body’s ability to be in a state of readiness to heal.”
Sometimes the dogs are used in actual physical therapy, especially in stroke cases where patients are encouraged to pet them with their weak hand or throw balls for the dogs.
“But patients enjoy it so much that we don’t want to make it work,” Burdulis said.
Not only patients benefit from the dogs. They make occasional visits to the surgery waiting room where anxious family members of patients in surgery are able to cuddle and pet them.
The staff also looks forward to their visits, from RNs and maintenance to administrators. On several floors, boxes of dog biscuits are kept for the dogs’ visits, and those dogs know exactly where they are, McGarvey said. The dogs go straight to those floors, to the desk or cupboard where it knows the treats are kept and sits, staring at the hoped-for snack.
“They’re better therapy for the staff than (they are for) the patients,” according to Dawn Garden, an RN who took time to play with one of the golden retrievers.
McGarvey said the idea of using therapy dogs is spreading. Lenoir Hospital has asked CarolinaEast to share information on its own program and CarolinaEast, in turn, began its program based on other hospitals’ programs. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
The current staff of dogs include four golden retrievers, a poodle, a Shih Tzu, a shepherd mix and a Chihuahua. Burdulis said the dogs manage to cover the hospital six days a week.
The staff hopes to draw more therapy dogs, however, so that the animals can be used in other CarolinaEast facilities such as its pediatrics offices.
Along with the larger dogs, the hospital hopes to attract more small therapy dogs.
“We’re trying to get the littles because a lot of patients like to get them up in the bed with them,” Burdulis said.
Anyone interested into volunteering with their dogs, or to find out about how to get them trained for the work, can apply through the hospital’s website at carolinaeasthealth.com.
Contact Bill Hand at email@example.com, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.