Four-legged Friends Take a Bite out of Pain
Just four years ago, in 2002, a team of five Packard Children’s staff members applied for an “Innovations in Patient Care” grant to pilot a pet therapy program for outpatients. “We had a real passion to get animals into the outpatient setting,” says Mary Delany, a charge nurse in the Day Hospital. Delany, along with associates Kristen Bechler, Karen Kristovich, Claire Twist, and Claudia Deffenbaugh, won the grant in February 2003 and began a year of research that August. The goal was to decrease patients’ stress, anxiety and discomfort by providing distraction during treatment, and to improve coping behavior in pediatric patients. The study measured patients’ assessment of their fear or anxiety in conjunction with medical treatment with and without pet therapy, and also measured the parents’ assessment of the same factors.
“We didn’t know how or if it would work,” says Delany, “especially in a 99 percent immune-suppressed population.” Support from patients and families was just part of the equation. “We were happy to find an amazing acceptance of this program by physicians and all services.” During the course of the study, not a single adverse event was reported. Instead, patients like Caitlin began to look forward to their hospital visits. “Suddenly,” Delany adds, “the Day Hospital was a popular place to be.”
Caitlin spends her one afternoon a month at Packard Children’s with an 8-year-old American Bulldog named B.J. B.J. and his trainer, Christie Jeffrey, are certified as an inseparable team by the Delta Society® Pet Partners®. Christie helps B.J. climb up onto Caitlin’s bed, where he simply lies down, snuggles in and soon dozes off. Caitlin strokes his head and stares dreamily out the window.
To obtain certification, B.J. underwent thorough obedience training followed by comprehensive exposure to increasing stressors in a mock-hospital setting. In this kind of live training, actors portray patients and doctors in hospital situations that challenge the dog’s concentration and bombard his senses with the many smells, sights, sounds and spontaneous chaos that can occur in a real hospital. Once the dog proves his ability to maintain control, he’s ready to visit real patients. But because trainers and dogs are certified together, B.J. can only visit patients with Christie.
| Caitlin, her mother and Lulu
Caitlin is an exceptionally lovely child, but B.J., like all dogs, is indifferent to appearance. This is another reason why therapy animals can have such a powerful affect on patients whose conditions involve disfigurement or trauma. Such patients, who may feel a crippling self-consciousness around other people, feel nothing but delight in the company of a therapy dog, who will shower them with affection regardless of how they look.
The evidence of the effect of animal-assisted therapy on children and adults is overwhelming. A list of 34 positive effects on the health and well being of pet owners and recipients of pet-therapy can be found on the Delta Society Web site.
Packard Children’s Day Hospital now offers pet therapy to patients on a regular schedule four times a week. Mary Delany credits the success of the program primarily to the strength of the trainers and dogs. The pet handlers “have become a part of our family,” says Delany. “This can be a pretty intense unit to work in. But the pets have even had a positive effect on staff anxiety levels as well.”
Having seen the positive effect of the animals in Packard Children’s pet therapy program on their own daughter convinced Caitlin’s parents, Kelly and Jim, that it was time for their family to have a pet of their own. On Christmas Eve, 2004, Caitlin and her older brother Ryan were introduced to their tiny new Shih-Tzu. The Burns family decided to name their new puppy Lulu after Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, where Caitlin first discovered her love of dogs.