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Catholic Hospital Therapy Dog Program Offers Many Happy Stories

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (CNS) — “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.

It is there that Judy, along with her handler Tammy Algood, visited Hopper last September while he was being treated for a blood clot after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke last August.

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

When things were especially tough, “it was just wanting to feel his love and make me smile and know there’s something worth going on for,” Hopper said. “She would come and give me her love, and she would come visit me, and she would be ready to move on for a couple more days.”

Hopper has returned to work at the grocery store where they met, but said he will never forget those visits he received when he needed them most thanks to Ascension Saint Thomas’s pet therapy program.

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

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

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

“It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect,” he added. “This 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 central and western 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, manager of volunteer services for Rutherford. “They love all the visits, and I look forward to doing something on a weekly basis as we grow the program and get more dogs.”

Before a pet therapy team can join one of the programs, certification is required. The certification includes classes just for handlers, as well as training for the dogs to make sure they know basic commands and how to react to different potential scenarios, like walking past another therapy dog, being surrounded by multiple people wanting to pet them, and more. .

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

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

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

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

“It’s relaxing, plus I love animals anyway,” Robert Newman said of visiting Cher. Newman is currently in the rehabilitation center recovering from a stroke.

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

Staff faces also lit up with smiles, and those smiles are the ones Walters, who was overwhelmed with emotion, said she loves to see.

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

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

It’s also helpful for the families of patients in the hospital, said Nancy Wiggs, Maggie’s caregiver.

“In just two or three minutes, she provides the maximum love and impact in someone’s life,” Wiggs said of Maggie. “We started going into intensive care a couple of weeks ago, and when you go into intensive care, nine out of 10 patients don’t know it, so we visit families, and that in itself was really gratifying for them to have some comfort. as well.”

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

An intensive care unit nurse at the downtown campus was thrilled by a visit from a volunteer and her dog, said Brittany Lee, director of nursing for the downtown ICU.

“She burst into tears and talked about how grateful she was for petting the dog and how therapeutic it was,” Lee said.

“She was one of our nurses who worked through the entire COVID pandemic and all the waves,” Lee added. “She talked about how heavy the feelings were around losing patients and how hard it’s been in the hospital lately, and how just petting the dog made things feel lighter.”

Knowing the impact it has for so many, Algood said the program is a perfect fit with Ascension Saint Thomas’ mission.

“Healing comes in many different forms,” ​​he said, “and sometimes it happens to come through a dog.”

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

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