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10/24/12: Emerson Hospital Pet Therapy Program Eases Stress of Hospitalization

When 12-year-old Joshua Sathyaraj of Hudson was hospitalized on Oct. 11 for a gastrointestinal illness, the child life specialists at Emerson Hospital in Concord gave him toys, video games and an iPad to take his mind off his discomfort.

Then Mercedes, a 5-year-old pet therapy dog, walked in.

“His entire face just lit up,” recalled Joshua’s mother, Sandhya Sathyaraj. “It was nice to see him so happy.”

Joshua said he had read about pet therapy, but didn’t know that Emerson had instituted the program this year. He eagerly invited Mercedes, a 41-pound standard poodle, to lie on her own blanket in bed with him. They continued to sit together when Joshua was able to move to a chair next to the window.

“Mercedes was really friendly and basically did what most dogs do, sniff my hands and let me pat her,” said Joshua, who was born at Emerson. “I thought it was really cool because I like dogs in general. It lightened my mood and helped me a lot.”

Claire Russell, social work supervisor in Emerson’s Care Management department, said the hospital partnered with the Pets and People Foundation (www.petsandpeoplefoundation.org) to provide pet therapy to patients on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The program began in the behavioral health unit and has since expanded to the medical surgical floors.

“It’s so gratifying to see the impact Mercedes has on everyone in this hospital,” Russell said. “There’s an amazing transformation in their expressions. It’s just wonderful how people respond to her.”

Acton resident Christine Macdonald, who has been with the non-profit, all volunteer Pets and People Foundation for 10 years, said every pet therapy animal is thoroughly tested and trained before being introduced to a community setting. Now a board member and volunteer program coordinator, Macdonald screens for desirable traits such as basic manners, a genuine partnership with the handler and a calm manner around crutches, wheelchairs and noisy medical equipment. Most of all, she said, the animal must enjoy interacting with lots of people.
“When we arrive at Emerson, Mercedes’s tail is wagging because she likes her job,” said Macdonald, recalling the long face Mercedes gave her one day when they drove past Emerson en route to another destination. “People thank me and say that seeing her is the best part of their day. That’s wonderful to hear, but it’s obvious she’s having a lot of fun. Sometimes we see very emotional things that hit home, but whenever a hand reaches out to stroke her head, I know she’s making someone feel better.”

In one particularly memorable situation, Mercedes visited a hospice patient and her family, who later thanked Emerson staff members for providing them with a positive experience amidst so much sadness. Another time, Mercedes intuitively sensed a woman’s distress when another patient in the vicinity became agitated. As the woman put her head in her hands, Macdonald felt a gentle tug on the leash. The woman gave permission for her to approach, so Mercedes walked over and gently leaned against her leg. The woman stroked her for a long time, in what Macdonald calls a “true testament to what pet therapy is all about.”

“Mercedes brings so much joy, and in many cases comfort, to people who are in very difficult and stressful situations,” Russell added. “She is Emerson’s ambassador of good will.”

In fact, Russell said it didn’t take long for Mercedes to develop a fan base at Emerson, with requests for visits coming from employees as well as patients. Plans are in place to expand the program so additional pet therapy dogs can benefit more patients hospital-wide.

Looking back on his experience, Joshua recommends that others try pet therapy if given a chance.

“Usually you’re not feeling happy when you’re sick,” he said. “Dogs really help make you feel better.”

Photo caption: Twelve year-old Joshua Sathyaraj of Hudson is comforted by Mercedes, a pet therapy dog, at Emerson Hospital on Oct. 11.
Emerson Hospital is a multi-site health system headquartered in Concord, Mass., with additional facilities in Sudbury, Groton and Westford. The 179-bed hospital provides advanced medical services to more than 300,000 individuals in 25 towns. To learn more, visit www.emersonhospital.org.