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Wellmont Health System: Pet Therapy Contributes Positively to Patient Care

Has health care gone to the dogs? At Holston Valley Medical Center, that certainly seems to be the case – but in the most positive way possible.

Through the hospital’s volunteer pet therapy service, dog owners and their best friends routinely visit Holston Valley and bring joy to patients, employees and hospital visitors.

“The program has been so good for our patients,” said Karen Fox, manager of Holston Valley’s volunteer services department. “One of our stroke patients, who had not spoken in days, had a visit from a therapy dog. The owner was telling the patient the dog’s name and immediately the patient looked up and, much to the surprise of family and medical staff, repeated the name back to the owner. These dogs have also comforted children afraid of needles and those who are simply down and out.”

The pet therapy program began in 2003 and was revived in 2010 at the request of a physician who felt patients greatly benefited from the presence of the animals. And for the last six and half years, these four-legged friends have been lifting the spirits of everyone they see. With 79 volunteers and 73 dogs currently in the program, Holston Valley has one of the largest volunteer pet therapy programs in the region.

Studies have confirmed what people have known for years: therapy dogs help people physically, emotionally and socially. Some of the benefits include comfort and happiness, as well as decreased stress, anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate, unconditional love and lifting patients’ spirits while contributing to the healing process of those who have been hospitalized. Upon seeing the positive effects the dogs have on patients, clinical leaders and nurses often request pet therapy for patients who are depressed, lonely or just need help relaxing.

Freddy, Litzi and Patches, along with their owners, are just a few of the hospital’s pet therapy team who visit patients and their families a few times each week in hopes of making their days a little brighter. Pet therapy dogs are recognized by the red bandanas around their necks, which show interaction with them is acceptable. Everyone is encouraged to pet, hug and love on the dogs.

“These dogs are part of a healing environment, and we appreciate the opportunity to play a role in assisting the hospital’s patients,” said Susan Bowers, special events coordinator for Holston Valley’s pet therapy program. “Patients usually do not know when therapy dogs will be visiting them, leaving an element of surprise and providing a welcome distraction from the anxiety of visiting a hospital.”

And during all major holidays, the pet therapy team is still on the job bringing company and comfort to anyone in the hospital, especially those who are missing the time with their families and loved ones. The dogs even get into the holiday spirit by dressing up for Christmas, Easter, Halloween and other holidays.

Doug Strickland, M.D., a gastroenterologist, said, “Wherever the therapy dogs are, you see smiles. I have seen them in the lobby, the hallways of the hospital and in patient rooms – every time, people light up, and the dogs’ tails are wagging. Even a brief time with these loving animals can help decrease stress and be uplifting.”

While the therapy dogs and handlers are focused on patients, the effect they have on staff is equally powerful. In an environment where most days can be rewarding but stressful, employees are always eager to take a few minutes from the hectic demands of their job to recharge with some of their furry friends.

All breeds are welcome in the therapy program after undergoing special training and certification through Therapy Dogs International and receiving all necessary immunizations. Their owners are also registered as hospital volunteers and must complete orientation. The pet therapy team works together to ensure a group of volunteers visits the hospital at least three to four days every week.

Tim Attebery, president of Holston Valley Medical Center, agrees with Fox and other experts. “The pet therapy program at Holston Valley is an important part of our patient experience. Scientific research has proven patients experience a nearly immediate physiological and psychological benefit from a visit from the pet volunteers. There’s something truly unique about the ability of a dog to make almost anyone feel better and get their mind off their illness and pain. The old saying is that dogs are man’s best friends, and our pet volunteers certainly live up to that. I greatly appreciate the dedication and personal sacrifice from the human owners and handlers. We love it when the dogs are in-house. I can’t imagine operating this hospital without the pet volunteers.”

These four-legged friends and their owners, with their dedication, compassion and enthusiasm, are helping patients have a better health care experience, happier holidays or take just a moment to smile and enjoy life.

Anyone who is interested in serving as a pet therapy volunteer can call Fox at 423-224-6041 or email karen.fox@wellmont.org.

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