MURFREESBORO, 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.
It’s there where Judy, along with her handler Tammy Algood, came to visit Hopper last September while 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 that you feel from a dog and the people that bring them,” Hopper told the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.
When things were especially tough, “it was just wanting to feel her love and make me smile and know that there is something worth it to keep going for,” Hopper said. “She would come and give me her loving, and she’d come and visit, and I’d be ready to keep going for a couple more days.”
Hopper has gone back to work at the grocery store where the two first met, but she said she’ll never forget those visits she received when it was needed the most thanks to the Ascension Saint Thomas pet therapy program.
Judy and Algood are just one of several pet therapy teams in the program who are bringing that same joy to patients at the Ascension Saint Thomas west and midtown Campuses in Nashville, and the Rutherford campus in Murfreesboro.
The program kicked off 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 reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.
“It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect,” she added. “This can help alleviate 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 both the midtown and west campuses. The midtown 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, volunteer services manager at Rutherford. “They love all the visits, and I’m hoping to do something weekly 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 just for the handlers as well as training for the dogs to make sure they know basic commands and how to react to different potential scenarios including passing by another therapy dog, being swarmed by several 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 veterinarian-approved health certificates, including the most recent vaccination documents, prior to the first visit, and all dogs are properly cleaned and groomed within 24 hours before each visit, Brown said.
Once all the certifications are done, all that’s left is to bring joy to the patients’ faces.
Cher, who has been part of the program for five years with her handler Rosemary Walters, was the star of the day during a recent visit to the midtown campus, particularly for patients currently in the rehabilitation unit.
“It’s calming, plus I love animals anyway,” Robert Newman said of his visit with Cher. Newman is currently in the rehabilitation center for stroke recovery.
“It’s always a change of scenery” to have the dogs come in, 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 wanted to.
The faces of the staff lit up with smiles, too, and those smiles are what Walters, who was overcome with emotion, said she loves to see.
“Having been a nurse” before retiring in 2000, “I know how stressful it is, and just to walk on a unit floor and see everybody’s face light up and be happy is always wonderful to see,” Walters said. “It’s just a little break in their day. … And I don’t do anything. 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 helpful to the families of patients in the hospital, too, said Nancy Wiggs, Maggie’s handler.
“In just two or three minutes, she gives the ultimate love and impact on somebody’s life,” Wiggs said of Maggie. “We started going into critical care a couple weeks ago, and when you go into critical care, nine out of 10 patients aren’t aware, so we visit with the families, and that in and of itself was really rewarding for them to have some comfort as well.”
The therapy program had to be suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Only within the past several months have the teams been able to return. But they came back first for staff, who needed a morale boost, Brown explained.
One nurse in the intensive care unit at the midtown campus became emotional about a visit with a volunteer and her dog, explained Brittany Lee, the midtown ICU’s nurse manager.
“She burst into tears and spoke about how grateful she was just to be petting the dog and how therapeutic it was,” Lee said.
“She was one of our nurses who worked through the full COVID pandemic, and all the surges,” Lee added. “She spoke about how heavy the feelings were surrounding the loss of patients and how hard it has been to be 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 fits perfectly with the mission of Ascension Saint Thomas.
“Healing comes in many different forms,” she said, “and it just happens to come sometimes through a dog.”
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Peterson is on the staff of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.