“She’s like my little sister,” Renee Hopper said of Judy, a Goldador dog, as they sat in the lobby of Ascension Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro.
It’s there where Judy, along with her handler Tammy Algood, came to visit Hopper in September 2021 while she was being treated for a blood clot after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke in August 2021.
“The first time they came and saw me, you can’t describe the love and care that you feel from a dog and the people that bring them,” Hopper said. When things were especially tough, “it was just wanting to feel her love and make me smile and know that there is something worth it to keep going for. She would come and give me her loving, and she’d come and visit, and I’d be ready to keep going for a couple more days.”
Now, Hopper has continued to be on the mend and back to work at the grocery store where the two first met, but she said she’ll never forget those visits she received when it was needed the most thanks to the Ascension Saint Thomas Pet Therapy Program.
Judy and Algood are just one of several pet therapy teams in the program who are bringing that same joy to patients at the Ascension Saint Thomas West and Midtown Campuses in Nashville, and the Rutherford Campus in Murfreesboro.
The Ascension Saint Thomas Pet Therapy Program first kicked off at the Midtown Campus in 2011, said Jan Brown, volunteer services coordinator at the Ascension Saint Thomas Midtown.
“Interacting with a friendly pet can help many physical and mental issues,” Brown said. “It can help reduce blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health.
“It can also release endorphins that produce a calming effect,” she added. “This can help alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve your overall psychological state.”
Currently, there are six active therapy dogs visiting the campuses. Wheaten Terrier Cher, Australian Shepherd Dobson, and Goldendoodle Nic visit both the Midtown and West Campuses. Additionally, the Midtown Campus has Mini Pinscher Pixie.
The West Campus, while not currently active, also have Golden Retriever Lola and Labrador Mavis, said Patrick Houseman, volunteer services coordinator for the West Campus. The West Campus first began their program in 2016.
Judy and Standard Poodle Magnolia “Maggie” Grace are part of the Rutherford program, which is the newest program.
“It’s been wonderful for our patients,” said Bryan Lowe, volunteer services manager for the Rutherford Campus. “They love all the visits, and I’m hoping to do something weekly as we grow the program and get more dogs.”
Before a pet therapy team can join one of the programs, certification is required and can be obtained from multiple organizations including Music City Pet Partners, Love on a Leash, Alliance Therapy Dogs, Therapy Dogs International or Intermountain Therapy Animals.
Certification includes classes just for the handlers as well as training for the dogs to make sure they know basic commands as well as how they react to different potential scenarios including passing by another therapy dog, being swarmed by several people wanting to pet them and more. Handlers also go through the volunteer onboarding process with Ascension Saint Thomas.
Additionally, Ascension Saint Thomas Volunteer Services obtains veterinarian approved health certificates, including the most recent vaccination documents, prior to the first visit, and all dogs are properly cleaned and groomed within 24 hours before each visit, Brown said.
‘This is our ministry’
Once all the certifications are done, all that’s left is to bring joy to the patients’ faces.
Cher, who has been part of the program for five years, with her handler Rosemary Walters, was the star of the day at the Midtown Campus on Tuesday, March 15, particularly for patients currently in the rehabilitation unit.
“It’s calming, plus I love animals anyway,” Robert Newman said of his visit with Cher. Newman is currently in the rehabilitation center for stroke recovery.
“It’s always a change of scenery” to have the dogs come in, added Thomas Evans Baird, who is also in the rehabilitation unit following back surgery. “I love dogs, so (Cher) can stay here with me permanently if she wanted to.
“I love horses, ducks, pigs, but dogs are my favorite,” he said. “I always had a dog. I can’t imagine a house without a dog in it.”
And along the way, the faces of the staff lit up with smiles, too, and those smiles are what Walters, who was overcome with emotion, said she loves to see.
“Having been a nurse” before retiring from the West Campus in 2000, “I know how stressful it is and just to walk on a unit floor and see everybody’s face light up and be happy is always wonderful to see,” Walters said. “It’s just a little break in their day. … And I don’t do anything. I just walk behind Cher. She does all the work, but you know you’re making a difference.”
“This is our ministry, and it means everything,” Algood added. “And Judy loves it, too. When she puts this coat on, she knows where we’re going.”
It’s helpful to the families of patients in the hospital, too, said Nancy Wiggs, handler of Maggie.
“In just two or three minutes, she gives the ultimate love and impact on somebody’s life,” Wiggs said of Maggie. “We started going into critical care a couple weeks ago, and when you go into critical care, nine out of 10 patients aren’t aware, so we visit with the families, and that in and of itself was really rewarding for them to have some comfort as well.”
But the help doesn’t stop there.
For more than a year, the therapy program had to be suspended when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it’s only within the last several months that the teams were able to return. But they didn’t return for the patients right away. They returned for the staff.
“Leadership reached out to us and said, ‘Could you please get the pets back in here for our staff,’” Brown explained. “They said, ‘We need to get our morale back up after COVID. They’re tired, they’re overworked, they’re stressed, and the dogs really help.’”
Help they did as one nurse was brought to tears.
“At the beginning of February, I happened to run into Jan in the hallway with the volunteer and her beautiful dog. I texted a few of the ICU nurses that were working that day to see if anyone wanted to come get some pet therapy quickly before going back to work,” explained Brittany Lee, nurse manager for the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the Midtown Campus. “One of my ICU nurses took full advantage of this offer. She came over to my office and sat down for about 10 minutes petting the dog. She burst into tears and spoke about how grateful she was just to be petting the dog and how therapeutic it was.
“She was one of our nurses who worked through the full COVID pandemic, and all the surges,” Lee added. “She spoke about how heavy the feelings were surrounding the loss of patients and how hard it has been to be in the hospital lately, and how just petting the dog made things feel lighter.”
Algood said the program fits perfectly with the hospital’s mission.
“Healing comes in many different forms,” Algood said, “and it just happens to come sometimes through a dog.”