A ‘paw-some’ program at TRMC
Hospital’s pet therapy program marks first year
UnityPoint Health — Trinity Regional Medical Center’s littlest healer walks the hospital’s floors on four legs. She’s got her own volunteer staff ID badge and walks on a bright red leash.
Sarah, a 10-year-old rescue beagle, has been visiting patients along with her handler, retired nurse Linda Whaley, for the past year.
Whaley retired last year after working as a nurse at Trinity for a little more than 40 years. She worked in ICU and cardiology for the first part of her career before moving into administration for the past 18 years.
Whaley had been wanting to start a pet therapy program at Trinity for years, but it just wasn’t the right time.
“I wanted to wait until I retired so I could really train the dog,” she said.
Sarah and Whaley are trained and certified through Therapy Dogs International, a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registering therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions.
“She was trained in basic obedience,” Whaley said about Sarah.
But to be certified as a therapy dog, she needed to be trained around medical equipment, loud and abrupt noises, as well as moving out of the way when there’s an emergency.
“The other thing is they have to be able to ‘leave it’ because you don’t want them to pick up any medication that maybe somebody dropped or something like that,” Whaley added.
Only about 20 percent of dogs that go through the TDI testing pass, Whaley said.
“The entire time that they’re testing, they’re looking for eye contact and whether they’re hesitant at all to go up to people,” she said. “They have to be able to interact with people and if they’re hesitant at all, then they’re disqualified. They can’t bark, they can’t whine, or you’re automatically disqualified as well.”
The debut of the hospital’s pet therapy program was Aug. 29, 2018.
“It’s a paw-some program,” Whaley said. “It was an unforgettable day.”
In the past year, Sarah and Whaley have made more than 1,200 visits with patients. Another dog and handler team, Trinity nurse Nichole Feikert and her Labrador retriever, Myles, have visited another 100 patients.
“What’s unique about our program is the two dogs that we have, their handlers are nurses, so it kind of makes it extra special because we kind of know people here and they know us,” Whaley said.
The hospital staff have been nothing but supportive of the program, Whaley said. In fact, sometimes when the two walk onto a unit floor, the nurses or doctors just greet Sarah.
“They’ll be like ‘Oh, hi Sarah,’ and I’m like ‘What am I, chopped liver?'” Whaley joked.
Before she started the program, Whaley did want to make sure the medical staff was on board with the plan.
“When we started, I wanted to make sure the medical staff was OK with having a dog in,” she said.
The benefits the program has for the hospital’s patients and visitors have been clear, Whaley said.
“Studies show that it lowers blood pressure and improves cardiovascular health. But more than that, it’s the mental and emotional benefits — it decreases the loneliness and they get somebody to come in and visit with them. It decreases anxiety,” she said. “Occasionally we’ll get called to urgent care, the walk-in clinic now, we’ll get called because there’s a child there and they just want a dog just to kind of relax them so their attention goes to the dog rather than whatever they’re doing. Those are the main benefits. And it just breaks up the boredom for patients.”
Mary Carlson, of Fort Dodge, confirms the impact Sarah’s visits have for patients.
“They always cheer you up — they’re like a kid,” she said. “And she’s such a pretty dog and nice and quiet. They cheer you up and it’s a good change to see them.”
Clarence Deserly, of Renwick, agreed.
“It’s nice to have a dog like that, just petting them,” he said. “It made me feel real good.”
“For me, my favorite part is just watching the positive patient reaction to Sarah and what it just does for them, it takes them away to a good place for a little bit,” Whaley said.
In addition to comforting patients and visitors and being a welcome visit for staff, the pet therapy program has helped Whaley as well.
“What this program does for patients, it also does for me,” she said. “It’s like my therapy.”
Whaley has received positive feedback from the hospital’s physicians over this past year. One doctor told her, “What you and Sarah are doing for patients, we can’t prescribe in medicine,” she said.
While Trinity’s pet therapy program currently has just two dog and handler teams, anyone interested in volunteering for the program can contact the hospital’s volunteer services office. Dogs must be certified through Therapy Dog International.