The Catholic Hospital’s Therapy Dog Program Offers Many Happy Stories

MURFEESBORO, Tennessee – “She’s like my little sister,” Renee Hopper said of Judy, a Goldador dog, as they sat in the lobby of Ascension Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro.

This is where Judy, accompanied by her mistress Tammy Algood, came to visit Hopper last September while she was being treated for a blood clot after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke last August.

“The first time they came to see me, you can’t describe the love and care you feel from a dog and the people who bring them in,” Hopper told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville. .

When things were particularly tough, “it was just to feel his love and make me smile and know that there’s something worth it,” Hopper said. “She would come to give me her love, and she would come to visit me, and I would be willing to go on for a few more days.”

Hopper returned to work at the grocery store where the two first met, but said she will never forget those visits she received when it was most needed through the Ascension pet therapy program. Saint Thomas.

Judy and Algood are just one of many pet therapy teams in the program who bring the same joy to patients at the Ascension Saint Thomas West and Midtown campuses in Nashville, and the Rutherford campus in Murfreesboro.

The program began in 2011, said Jan Brown, volunteer services coordinator at Ascension Saint Thomas Midtown.

“Interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues,” Brown said. “It can help lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.

“It can also release endorphins which produce a calming effect,” she added. “It can help relieve pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state.”

Currently, six therapy dogs visit the campuses. Wheaten terrier Cher, Australian shepherd Dobson and goldendoodle Nic visit the downtown and west campuses. The downtown campus has Pixie, a mini Doberman pinscher.

Judy and Magnolia “Maggie” Grace, a standard poodle, are part of the Rutherford program.

“It’s been wonderful for our patients,” said Bryan Lowe, director of volunteer services at Rutherford. “They love all the visits, and I hope to do something every week as we grow the program and get more dogs.”

Before a pet therapy team can join one of the programs, certification is required. Certification includes classes only for handlers as well as training for dogs to ensure they know basic commands and how to react to different potential scenarios, including being passed by another therapy dog, being invaded by several people wanting to caress them and more.

Managers also go through the volunteer onboarding process with Ascension Saint Thomas.

Ascension Saint Thomas Volunteer Services obtains veterinarian-approved health certificates, including the most recent vaccination documents, before the first visit, and all dogs are properly cleaned and groomed within 24 hours of each visit, Brown said. .

Once all the certifications are done, all that remains is to bring joy to the faces of the patients.

Cher, who has been in the program for five years with her mistress Rosemary Walters, was the star of the day during a recent visit to the downtown campus, especially for patients currently in the rehab unit.

“It’s soothing, plus I love animals anyway,” Robert Newman said of his visit with Cher. Newman is currently at the rehab center recovering from a stroke.

“It’s always a change of scenery” to bring the dogs, added Thomas Evans Baird, who was in the rehabilitation unit following back surgery. “I love dogs, so (Cher) can stay here with me permanently if she wants.

The faces of the staff also lit up with smiles, and those smiles are what Walters, overwhelmed with emotion, said she liked to see.

“Having been a nurse” before retiring in 2000, “I know how stressful it is, and just walking on the floor of a unit and seeing everyone’s face light up and being happy is always wonderful to see,” Walters said. “It’s just a little break in their day. …and I do nothing. I walk right behind Cher. She does all the work, but you know you’re making a difference.

“It’s our ministry, and it means everything,” Algood added. “And Judy loves it too. When she puts on this coat, she knows where we are going.

It’s also helpful for the families of hospitalized patients, said Nancy Wiggs, Maggie’s manager.

“In just two or three minutes, she gives the ultimate love and impact on someone’s life,” Wiggs said of Maggie. “We started going into intensive care a few weeks ago, and when you go into intensive care, nine out of 10 patients are unaware, so we visit families, and that in itself was really rewarding for them d have a bit of comfort too.

The therapy program had to be put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Only in the past few months have teams been able to return. But they came back first for the staff, who needed a morale boost, Brown said.

A nurse at the downtown campus intensive care unit was moved by the visit of a volunteer and her dog, said Brittany Lee, nurse manager of the downtown ICU.

“She burst into tears and said how grateful she was to pet the dog and how therapeutic it was,” Lee said.

“She was one of our nurses who worked through the whole COVID pandemic and all the flare-ups,” Lee added. “She talked about the seriousness of the feelings surrounding the loss of patients and how difficult it was to be in the hospital lately, and how just petting the dog made it lighter.”

Knowing the impact it has for so many people, Algood said the program fits perfectly with the mission of Ascension Saint Thomas.

“Healing comes in many different forms,” ​​she said, “and sometimes it comes through a dog.”

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Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, the newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.