The patient at
Mission Hospital's behavioral health unit had lost someone close to her. Diagnosed
with major depressive disorder, she had suicidal thoughts, suffered insomnia
and kept to herself.
She hadn't gone to any patient groups and was guarded with the staff.
She resisted their offers to try the pet therapy program, which brings
trained dogs and their handlers into the hospital.
Finally, a nurse convinced the woman to accept a visit. At first, the woman
just eyed the sweet little dog named Mia. But eventually, she warmed up
and began petting the dog's soft fur. Mia had opened the door to healing.
"The transformation was just amazing," said Katie Gellis, RN,
charge nurse at the behavioral health unit. "Afterwards, she slowly
came out of her shell. She'd go to groups sporadically and then more
regularly. Overall, she was doing so much better."
St. Joseph Health hospitals offer pet therapy programs, including
St. Joseph Hospital, Orange and
Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa. Pet therapy programs help patients recover and cope with their
"There is a lot of research about how pets help the human spirit,"
said Christy Cornwall, director of community benefit at Mission Hospital,
who started the program there. Pets can help patients take their minds
off their illness and hospitalization and lower their stress level, she said.
"It brings some peace of mind," she said. "It can connect
people back with the pets they miss at home."
The behavioral health unit has been welcoming pets since November. Pet
therapy has been offered as a community benefit service to Mission Hospital
patients for the past eight years and pets are now allowed in three units:
acute rehabilitation unit, chemical dependency and most recently, behavioral
health. Seven teams of trainers and dogs visit the hospital.
"The patients are so grateful for the visits and I think it brings
them a little bit of peace and TLC during a very difficult time in their
life," Cornwall said. She recalled one woman who started sharing
stories about her animals after meeting a dog named Gus. "At the
end of the visit, she said, 'Isn't God wonderful? He kept me here
so I could meet you.'"
Amy Martz, MSW, LCSW, RN-BC, manager of behavioral health inpatient programs
at Mission Hospital, says it's healthy for patients to remember that
they have it within themselves to give and receive care. It can begin
to define for the patient that this whole environment is here to help
them, she said.
"One of the things I've witnessed is being with pets gives the
patients an opportunity to get in touch with happy memories and healthy
parts of themselves," Martz said. "It helps remind them that
they are more than their diagnosis, more than their current crisis. It
rounds out their picture of themselves."
Antonietta Treacy, volunteer program coordinator at St. Joseph Hospital,
Orange, said the hospital has 11 pet therapy teams that are always in
demand. "More people started asking for dogs to visit," she
said. The pet therapy teams are allowed in designated areas of the hospital
and frequently visit patients undergoing chemotherapy and dialysis, she said.
"Animals have unconditional love and they can be so healing for individuals
and visitors too," she said. Patients and visitors ask about the
canines when they're not there. "Their absence is definitely
noticed," she said.
Patients, visitors and staff get to know the dogs and their handlers. Pets
include a Great Dane named Becket that wears a bow tie and a pair of Cairn
Terriers – Gypsy and Gordon – owned by St. Joseph Health employee
Vicki Slone and her husband, Ernie. The dogs and their trainers receive
warm welcomes at the hospital.
Click here to read about Vicki and Ernie's experiences as volunteers.
"It's a gift and I think it does add a little bit of sunshine
to the patients and visitors and staff as well," Treacy said.
Treacy recalled how a Sheltie named Quinn calmed a little boy in the emergency
room who was screaming as nurses tried to draw blood. The boy stopped
crying as soon as Quinn was placed on the bed next to him and distracted
the boy so the nurse could do her job.
Damon Tinnon, director of gift planning and volunteer services at Queen
of the Valley Medical Center, said the hospital has been partnering with
a non-profit organization called PAWS for Healing for more than 15 years.
Patients and visitors enjoy seeing the dogs, he said.
"It's also a spirit lifter for the nurses and the office staff,"
he said. "Some of the staff members have dog biscuits or treats.
It's a really big part of what we do here at Queen of the Valley Medical
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.