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Unusual visitors bring joy: Therapy animals make emotional connections with Children’s Hospital patients and staff

Machines keeping track of vital signs beep at steady intervals. Pain medications are adjusted. And a little boy stares blankly at the television in the corner of the room, waiting for the next procedure in a day filled with treatments, poking and prodding.

But the monotony of the day is interrupted when an unusual visitor comes into his hospital room—a therapy dog named Zeke

"[The boy] was having a terrible time," said Jan Upchurch, Director of the Child Life Program. "Then he got up and walked down the hallway with Zeke and his trainer, Kristy, and the boy’s mom said it was the first time he’d smiled since he’d been in the hospital."

For many children being treated in the Children’s Hospital at Scott & White, hospital life can become disheartening. But with the addition of the therapy animal program, the hospital’s smallest patients have something to look forward to.

"For some of our long-term kids, who are in the hospital for days and sometimes weeks at a time, they are really missing their pets," said Jaclyn Meeks, a Child Life specialist. "So, to be able to spend some time with an animal is a real joy for them."

Ms. Upchurch said the therapy animals allow the children to connect emotionally in ways they can’t with adults. "We’ve had times where kids have been there a while and they haven’t talked to any of the staff members, but they’ll talk to Zeke," said Zeke’s handler Kristy Tyler.

Fun for all ages

Ms. Tyler said not only is it a welcomed interruption to the day for the children, but also for doctors, nurses and hospital staff.

"Working with really sick kids, day in and day out, there are times where the staff needs a break," she said. "They need a moment that is different and they can kind of smile and relax. And dogs do that for you."

Zeke is a weekly visitor to the fourth floor of the Scott & White Temple campus, but the pediatric patients also get a monthly visit from two miniature donkeys, named Pino and Dolce.

"Most of our kids have never even seen a real-size donkey, let alone a miniature donkey that wears shoes and pants," Ms. Meeks said. "So, it’s a very fun thing for everybody to get to see and experience."

"When I first got my donkeys, I noticed that their dispositions were very much like dogs," said Pino and Dolce’s handler, Elin Phillips. "They’re very curious. And I realized very quickly after owning them that they were very social. They wanted to see what I was doing. They wanted to be right around me. They wanted to have what was in my hand. They would play with each other and with toys."

Donkeys are extremely smart, Ms. Phillips said. They get a bad rap for being stubborn, but they are very intelligent.

"I thought to myself, if a dog can [be a therapy animal], then why not a donkey?" she said. "And everything just fell into place after that."

About the program&

Two years ago the Children’s Hospital was cleared to have animal-assisted therapy. According to Scott & White’s policy, the therapy animals had to have passed the rigorous evaluation of the Delta Society, a non-profit organization that helps train animals for therapy assistance.

"So I looked on their website and saw that there was a person in Waco who had a Delta Society certified dog," Ms. Upchurch said. "I called her up and she was delighted and excited."

That person was Zeke’s handler, and she helped Ms. Upchurch pilot the animal therapy program at Scott & White. "We have very strict guidelines about the animals coming for infection control reasons," Ms. Upchurch said. "That’s the reason why not just any animal can come up here."

Even though not any animal can visit the hospital, there is a way for interested pet owners to have their pet evaluated to see if they have what it takes to become a registered or certified therapy animal. For more information, visit the Delta Society website.

"If you have the time to give, and you’re blessed to have an animal with the demeanor that can do it, it’s wonderful," Ms. Tyler said. "It’s the most rewarding thing in my life. I drive from Georgetown to do this because it’s important and it matters to me."