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By Jane DeMouy
It's almost time for visiting hours, and volunteers Ross, Jessie, Sophie and MG wait together in a Clinical Center lounge before going upstairs to see patients. Some will visit the outpatient pediatric clinic, some will go to the rooms of cancer patients too ill to leave their beds. Sometimes they spend time with mentally ill adolescents. They all seem to be anticipating the next hour.
Suddenly, Ross spots something moving on the upper ledge of the atrium window. Others notice and look up, following his gaze. It's a small house sparrow, trapped in the building, vainly seeking a way out. Ross's eyes are riveted on the fluttering bird and his ears begin to twitch. When someone comments on it, Barbara, Ross's companion, says, "Well, he is a bird dog."
Ross and his fellow caring canines sit calmly with their owners while Dr. Christopher Romines, the Clinical Center veterinarian, checks them for parasites, infections and a pleasant demeanor. They've all been bathed, groomed and had their teeth brushed prior to this bi-weekly visit. But there's always the possibility that a dog might "pick up something in the parking lot," explains Romines. So they take no chances with patients who are already very ill.
Holly Parker, a recreation therapist in the CC's rehabilitation medicine department, began an NIH pilot program with National Capital Therapy Dogs 15 years ago and has never looked back. "It's the very favorite part of my job," she says. It's her responsibility to match a dog's temperament and ability with what therapists say their patients need. According to long-time volunteer and former nurse Linda Solano, whose whippet Jessie is a favorite with patients, Parker is masterful at matching a dog's ability with a patient's treatment goals.
For an hour every other week, these special dogs all carefully screened and trained to work in hospitals and volunteers like Solano bring affection, pain relief and contact with the world outside the hospital to sick people and their families. In the presence of these loving, affectionate dogs, stroke patients who have lost speech struggle to talk. Patients who need to learn again how to stand or walk will move in spite of pain to get a treat for their four-legged visitor. Alzheimer's patients who have lost so much of the world around them respond to the dog's unconditional attention and affection. "She really likes me," says one senior. "That dog doesn't care if I'm dressed up."
Some, such as patients with brittle bone disease, need a dog who can lie absolutely still at the bottom of the bed. The dogs, motionless for the duration of the visit, concentrate on the patient. In these situations, body heat, soft fur and the dog's gentle demeanor give an emotional boost that's better than any medicine. "The dog and the person sometimes make a connection, and you just need to stay out," Solano says. "That's thrilling that's the magic time."
That kind of magic happened when Jessie first met Samantha Askey, who was born with HIV and travels from Orlando to NIH every 3 months for treatment. Now 15, red-headed Sam has a petite frame that belies a bubbly personality. She first met Jessie 4 years ago. "We bonded," she says, with a wide grin, settling onto the floor next to Jessie. Jessie nestles into the crook of Sam's elbow and extends her long graceful neck for a good scratch. Sam obliges.
In the pediatric outpatient clinic, the grins begin to appear as soon as the kids spot Jessie and Solano at the end of the corridor. Two girls are instantly beside the table where Solano has set Jessie on a small lavender rug. She produces pictures of Jessie and her puppies, fur-brushes the kids can use and treats they delight in giving to Jessie. "She licked my hand!" squeals one little girl. After a while, Solano produces a Polaroid and takes pictures of each child with Jessie, souvenirs they take home. There has been no thought of doctors or illness or medicine during this time. Even the parents are smiling.
Robin Kirk, another volunteer who is also a former nurse, is quite familiar with the CC since her husband, Dr. Allan Kirk, is chief of NIDDK's Kidney Transplantation Branch. Robin, who is a certified canine behavior and training specialist, decided to combine her love of hospital work and dogs. For the last 2 years, she's been bringing Scout, the family's 4-year-old golden retriever, to visit the highly excitable kids in the adolescent psych ward. At 85 pounds, Scout is a "huge Teddy bear," who loves people. When Scout visits, the kids are able to focus on petting and brushing their docile, furry friend for 20 minutes at a time, providing a calm respite in their hyperactive lives.
Their owner-volunteers report that the dogs love their work and know what's expected of them. During visits "they're on the job," Parker says. "They're attentive, very tuned in." When they return to the visitor's lounge for a de-briefing and some well-earned treats from Parker, "they let the energy go," wagging tails and nuzzling for some attention themselves from their owners. "National Capital Therapy Dogs is a great organization. These are special dogs and special people," Parker says. "I see the good they do every time they come."
The group is supported by the CFC. For a complete list of charities, see http://cfc.nih.gov.
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