Canine volunteers soothe cancer patients | News, Sports, Jobs
There is a group of volunteers at the Hillman Cancer Center at UPMC Susquehanna whose primary job is to calm and comfort patients undergoing cancer treatment. These are no ordinary volunteers. They walk on four legs, are hairy, and their soulful eyes and friendly nature are hard to resist.
Having trained in pet therapy with her own dog, Michelle Gaida, director of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, knew the benefits pets have for nursing home patients and also for students dealing with the stress of finals.
“We wanted to bring that to our cancer patients,” she says. “Cancer is a devastating diagnosis. This results in depression. This can lead to anxiety. You are tired. You’re afraid. You might suffer a little. Pet therapy can reduce all of these symptoms.
“To be able to see a pet come in and take a patient that you can clearly see is distressed, anxious and depressed, and turn it around and see a huge smile on their face and bring them so much joy seeing these pets. That’s why we are here. It is our life’s work. That’s what we want to do, and I’m just proud to be part of it. Gaida said.
Patients generally enjoy visits from canine volunteers.
“They are all excited. It brings them a huge smile. They’re like come here, come here. They want to play with them for as long as they can,” she says.
There is evidence and research that indicates that it only takes about five minutes with a pet to see anxiety and depression levels as well as blood pressure and pain levels decrease.
“It’s a huge advantage” she added.
The program has been operational for about four years, although it has taken a break due to COVID. Now they have started to ramp up again, Gaida said.
“It’s just one of the tools in our toolbox. These complementary therapies that we offer to the patient are so important. We provide world-class cancer care here at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, and that’s just the icing on the cake,” she said
“Things like that, like our chill cap program, our massage therapy program, other services like that, that we can offer. We don’t want anyone to have cancer, but if you do have cancer, knowing that you can have amazing care here, where you live, near you with these great complementary therapies is such a benefit,” she says.
Sarah Reid, of Williamsport, who along with her dogs, Augie and Vogue, have been part of Pet Therapy at Hillman and have been visiting patients for about four and a half years. In all, six dogs visit patients on different days of the week.
Reid explained a bit about what it takes to be a therapy dog.
“We just kind of roam around and say hello to people and give people a chance to share their story and interact with the dog,” she says.
“A therapy dog is a trained pet that has gone through a certification process and is allowed to visit hospitals, nursing homes and other public places with permission, of course. They provide the service of just comfort and interaction with people, said Reid.
While there is no specific type or breed of dog that is best suited as a therapy dog, pets that have undergone obedience training and have a calm disposition are better for the job.
In a hospital setting, dogs should be trained to be around medical equipment and they should not be afraid of loud noises or elevators.
“Any dog can be a therapy dog if they are friendly, driven to obey, and love people.” said Reid.
“Patients love to see the dogs. They just have a great chance to separate themselves from treatment for a little while, and it’s also a wonderful opportunity for them too to share their own pets and their own experiences,” she says. “Dogs really bring that out in people.”
For Reid, the most rewarding part of coming to Hillman is meeting new people to hear their stories.
“I love people and I love interacting with them, and I love doing that with my pets because it opens a lot of doors,” she says.
Augie and Vogue also enjoy the experience and get excited when she approaches the hospital. On the days that she brings the visiting dogs to the cancer treatment center, she uses different collars and leashes and the dogs know where they are going on those days and that they need to be on their best behavior.
Who is most excited to visit Hillman?
“I think it’s a tie. We both like to come,” said Reid.
Reid said she would encourage anyone with a friendly, outgoing dog to see if their pet might be a good fit for the program.
“I encourage you to train him and find a local organization to help you. There is always room for more people to join us and volunteer in this way,” she says.
Augie and Vogue are therapy dogs, not service dogs, Reid said. A service dog provides a service to its owner or handler due to a disability or medical condition.
“A therapy dog is very different in that they provide no service to their handler. Their whole benefit is to interact and give people a better day,” said Reid.
This story was written from a video that can be viewed on the Sun-Gazette YouTube channel.