August 24, 2016 | by Denise Heady
Every Tuesday morning, the Recreation Therapy team at City of Hope covers the communal couches in the fifth-floor family room of City of Hope Helford Clnical Research Hospital with large bed sheets. Then staff members clear the area to create an open space and place antibacterial hand wipes throughout the room.
Once the room is ready, trained therapy dogs are brought in and positioned on the couches, where they wait, well, patiently for patients to arrive. For the next hour and a half, these therapy dogs will be a welcome distraction from patients’ illnesses and treatments and provide much needed snuggling and affection.
There is something magical that happens when a patient encounters a dog,” said recreation therapist Heather Stephenson. “We have had patients that are very sad, tearful and hesitant to open up. Once they participate in pet therapy, we have watched them transform, smile, laugh and interact with the dog and other patients."
That is precisely why the pet therapy program at City of Hope was created – to enhance patients’ well-being and to help treat the whole person and his or her needs.
More than just medical care
City of Hope’s popular program began just over a year ago in partnership with Love On 4 Paws, a nonprofit group run by volunteers who are committed to making a positive difference for those in need through animal-assisted therapy. Initially offered twice a month, the program has grown to include weekly visits because of increased participation and patient requests.
Therapy animals have been found to have a calming effect on patients, and studies have determined that pet therapy during chemotherapy combats depression and improves blood oxygenation. Other benefits of pet therapy include decreased heart rate and blood pressure, increased feelings of acceptance, reduced stress levels, and lowered anxiety and distress.
“It just made my heart feel so warm to see the dogs,” said one patient. “When you’re in the hospital so sick, you sometimes lose hope. I felt so down, and when I got to see these dogs and knew the visit was coming, it gave me motivation to get out of bed and walk to the location. The little doggies made me feel so, so good. They gave me good energy – positive energy.”
Because cancer patients need – and deserve – more than just medical care, specialized programs such as pet therapy have been created to help minimize the impact of illness, manage its symptoms, and deepen the meaning of life for patients and their loved ones. “Many times, we are able to motivate a patient to get out of bed and walk so that they can come to pet therapy and see the dogs,” said Stephenson, coordinator of City of Hope’s pet therapy program.
Currently, the pet therapy program is open to any inpatient that is being seen by the Recreation Therapy team, with doctor’s consent. For patients whose family and friends don’t live close enough to visit frequently, it can be an effective way to help with the absence of loved ones.
“Pet therapy is such a useful tool,” said Stephenson. “I just knew it was something that City of Hope had to be a part of. To hear a patient say, ‘You made my week’ or ‘This was the best part of my entire hospitalization,’ and know that you made a difference, that’s what it is all about.”
If you are looking for a second opinion or consultation about your treatment, request an appointment online or contact us at 800-826-HOPE. Please visit Making Your First Appointment for more information.