Monday, March 21, 2016

Four-Legged Friends Bring Comfort and Joy to Pediatric Patients

In the spring of 2013, Delia Binette’s family, friends and care team gathered in Yawkey 8 to celebrate a momentous achievement – Delia had successfully completed her nine-month chemotherapy regimen and was deemed cancer-free. Among Delia’s best friends was Sammy, a black lab in the Pet Therapy Program at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC), who had stood by Delia’s side throughout her entire cancer journey. To get a head start on the celebration, Sammy helped himself to a piece of Delia’s personalized cake.

In a fit of giggles, Delia, then 6, wiped the frosting off Sammy’s snout and gave him a tight hug, thanking him for coming to her celebration.


Delia hugs Sammy at one of her visits to MGHfC. Photo courtesy of Kristine Binette.

In the fall of 2012, Delia was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive childhood bone cancer. For nine months, Delia and mother, Kristine, traveled to MGHfC from their home in Saco, Maine. “We’d stay at MGHfC on the inpatient unit for three or four nights a week, then go back home,” said Kristine. “A few weeks into our stay, Becky Warsofsky, Delia’s child life specialist, introduced us to the idea of pet therapy and thought Delia might be interested because she loves animals.”

One Tuesday afternoon, a big, cuddly black lab named Sammy approached Delia’s bedside, with his handler, owner and Mass General volunteer, Bobbi Evans, standing close by. Delia, typically on the shy side when meeting new people, lit up upon seeing Sammy and invited him to lie next to her on her bed. The next half hour was filled with belly rubs, laughter, stories and, most of all, comfort and joy.

Dogs like Sammy are part of the Pet Therapy Program at MGHfC and Massachusetts General Hospital. The program was initiated by collaborations among the Department of Nursing, the Volunteer Department and Infection Control Unit in 2003. The program is now run by the Volunteer Department.


Sammy and his owner, handler and Mass General volunteer, Bobbi Evans. Photo courtesy of Bobbi Evans and Boston Works On-Call magazine.

Mandi Coakley, RN, PhD, a staff specialist/nurse scientist in the Department of Nursing, helped start the Pet Therapy Program and published her research on the effects that dogs can have on patients’ health in 2009. “When the dogs visit, patients often report feeling more relaxed, comforted and more connected to the outside world,” said Coakley. “The more difficult feelings, like anger, frustration and anxiety, were dramatically reduced. It was a much more positive environment for patients and staff alike.”

For children and teens, having a visit from a pet therapy dog can help normalize the hospital experience and can help children learn how to cope with difficult feelings. “Many of our patients have dogs or other pets at home, so when they see a dog in the hospital, it can remind them of home,” said Melissa Tecci, MS, CCLS, a child life specialist on Ellison 17 and on the John Hancock Child Life and Wellness Services team at MGHfC. “The best reactions we get are the smiles and sitting up in bed. Dogs really do brighten the world for children here. They bring a sense of calm and happiness.”

Now, there are eight dogs enrolled in the Pet Therapy Program. Dogs and their handlers, who are also Mass General volunteers, visit 14 floors throughout the hospital. If patients are interested in a pet therapy visit, nurses and, in pediatric units, child life specialists, can coordinate the visit on an approved floor.

For Delia, having a best friend at the hospital also gave her something to look forward to throughout her treatment, and over time, she came to know Tuesdays as Sammy Day. “Delia is a darling little girl who was already in treatment when I met her. She and Sammy fell in love instantly,” said Evans, the Pet Therapy Program’s first and longest-serving handler. “Sammy had a special ability, call it a sixth sense if you will, to know when he was truly needed or if he needed to spend a little extra time with someone. He did that for Delia.”

For Kristine, seeing her daughter find joy during a difficult time meant the world to her. “With Sammy, and with dogs in general, there was nothing being asked of Delia. She could just be and Sammy knew that,” said Kristine. “There was a quietness with her holding Sammy and giving him belly rubs and just being. Sammy was her refuge.”

The Pet Therapy Program also added a human element to Delia’s care, said Kristine. “When you’re at MGHfC, you get the best medical care, which is what you want for your child, but the hospital does such an amazing job at balancing that human side as well. They always remembered who Delia is and what made her happy.”

On days when Delia felt up to it, she would take Sammy for a walk around the inpatient unit. Sammy would happily oblige, stepping in sync with Delia. “I remember someone referring to Sammy as a comfort dog and I just loved that,” said Evans. “It’s really what he was, a comfort dog, especially on difficult days.”

Shortly after being discharged from the hospital and seeing how Delia benefitted from Sammy’s companionship, the Binettes decided to look into getting Delia her own service dog for another chronic medical condition.

“The night before we left to pick up Delia’s service dog, we found out Sammy had passed away. I had to tell Delia and she was very sad,” said Kristine. “Sammy was her guardian angel in life and in death. The way we look at, Sammy held on for Delia until he knew she’d be getting another dog to watch over her. The timing was just too perfect.”


Delia, now 8, and her service dog, Stormi. Photo courtesy of Kristine Binette and Domesti-Pups.

The next day, Delia, now 8, met her new service dog Stormi, a Champagne-colored Golden Retriever with big, brown eyes. Stormi, however, wasn’t the first choice for a service dog. “The original dog we were supposed to get was also named Sammy, but he ended up going to another home,” said Kristine. “Like I said, Sammy is her guardian angel and he is always with Delia in spirit.”

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