Pets contributing to healing process for patients

July 31, 2006
Sassy, a 12-year-old miniature poodle, has been part of the patient care team at New Hanover Regional Medical Center for more than seven years, seeing patients and helping meet their needs with her special gifts of enthusiasm and compassion. Dressed in creative outfits with her brown eyes shining, Sassy is part of the medical center’s pet therapy program and one of a team of highly trained dogs who visit patients, offering comfort and companionship. “The minute she sees the hospital she perks up,” said Betty Ames, Sassy’s owner and herself a longtime volunteer at NHRMC. “She’s made a difference in a lot of lives.” The pet therapy program, part of the Healing Arts Network, is available at NHRMC, the Oaks and Coastal Rehabilitation Hospital. Physicians may request a certified pet therapy dog to visit a patient or to make a general visit to a patient unit. Studies have shown pet therapy offers many benefits to patients. “Pet therapy visits provide a welcome change in the patient’s day,” said Michele Erich, music therapist and child life specialist in the Healing Arts Network at NHRMC. “Visits from pet therapy dogs help patients feel less lonely, more comfortable and calmer. Therapy dogs provide a positive focus to temporarily redirect patients from their hospitalization and illness.” Before a formal program was in place, some patients were permitted to bring their pets from home. During this time, Kelly, a rescued pound puppy, made visits to Paul Gould, stepson of Kelly’s owner, M.E. Littlejohn. Gould was comforted by the presence of Kelly during his illness. “She got up on the bed with Paul and he said she really made him feel better and that he didn’t hurt as bad when she was there and he could pet her,” said Littlejohn. A formal pet therapy program started in the mid-1990s, sparked by a breast cancer patient receiving treatment at the medical center. The program uses dogs specifically trained for this purpose. Sassy, for example, holds four degrees – two in obedience, one in good citizenship and one in pet therapy. Currently three dogs come in weekly for visits and two others come in as needed. “I would like to see this program in every hospital. It really does something for morale,” one cancer patient said during a recent visit from Sassy. For more information about pet therapy or the healing arts at NHRMC contact Michele Erich at 815-5870.