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."
Several other 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 health challenges.
"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.
"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 Center."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.