The Power of Pets

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Bijou might look like a walking cotton puff adorned with a bow, but he’s doing serious work to help patients at Tucson Medical Center get healthier.

The 8-year-old Bischon Frise and his owner, Peggi Patterson, come most Mondays to make the rounds to recovering adults and children, bringing smiles and a short distraction from the tubes and machines that are unavoidable during a hospital stay.

Although the pet therapy program at TMC started in 1998, science over time has continued to indicate pets can trigger therapeutic effects, from reducing blood pressure  to increasing natural levels of oxytocin, which has a strong connection to maternal behavior, social bonding and feelings of wellbeing.

Bijou and Peggi are part of nearly 40 active teams volunteering at TMC. Most participating pets are dogs, ranging from a six-pound Yorkshire Terrier to a 130-pound Great Dane. There is also one particularly accommodating cat and three miniature ponies.

For Patterson, who has been coming to TMC for six years, it’s a chance to give back. “It just makes you feel better if you can bring a smile to their face, even if it’s just for a few minutes.”

On a recent round of the pediatric unit, with Bijou breaking the ice, Patterson struck up a conversation with a high school senior, who said he thought he might work with animals someday. A 9-year-old boy was delighted when Bijou showed off a series of tricks, from sitting and rolling over to paw shaking. A 15-year-old girl said she hoped to get a Chihuahua when she got out of the hospital.

And so it went, the snow-white powder puff serving as a bridge for human connections.

“Patients often have a lot going on physically and emotionally, but when pets come in, all that anxiety, stress, pain and fear is just reduced to a remarkable degree,” said Monica Frisbie, the coordinator of the TMC Pet Therapy Program. “Family members, too, have a lot of anxiety, so it’s helpful for them. And for staff, who are going 100 miles per hour in high-anxiety jobs, even just to take a few minutes away to visit can help reduce their stress levels too.”

“It really is a very healing program.”

It’s not a bad gig for the pets, either. Penny Lundstrom, a volunteer of 12 years, said when Bogie, her 9-year-old pug, sees her put on her uniform, he goes to the door and waits patiently. He’s so fawned over and told he’s “cute” so many times, she jokes, that it’s clear to her she’s just the lady on the other end of the leash.

“I haven’t regretted it for a minute,” Lundstrom said. “I just think the value to the patients, the families and even the doctors and nurses is beyond words.”

In 2011, the teams worked nearly 900 hours at TMC and interacted with almost 9,400 patients, visitors and staff throughout the hospital, including adult units, pediatrics, Hospice, Palo Verde behavioral health and the surgery waiting room lobby.

Not all pets are appropriate for therapy, as longtime volunteer Carol Beagle can attest. She and Holly, a 13-year-old Sheltie, have been cheering up patients at TMC for 11 years.

Beagle, a retired second grade teacher, has two other dogs that aren’t appropriate for the program. A pet has to go through certification to make sure the animal doesn’t become agitated near wheelchairs, walkers, gurneys, canes and beeping machines. The animals can’t be aggressive to others and have to be friendly when approached. Owners, who must pass a background check, also attend orientation and shadow another team before going out on their own.

Holly isn’t the kind of dog to work a room. She’s quiet and patient and steady. But she’s had profound impacts. Beagle recalls going to intensive care once, where an elderly woman sat in a wheelchair. Staff indicated the woman had been unresponsive throughout her visit, to the point she wouldn’t even open her eyes when addressed. But when a nurse said Holly had come to visit, Beagle recalled, “She opened her eyes, looked at Holly and smiled. To this day, I remember that.”

Over the years, she’s been thanked for her service, which made all the grooming and the hours worth it. But she also got something out of it in return, she said. “Whenever I left, I always felt so good. Sometimes, people would say the visit was the best thing that happened to them all day, and it would just put a smile on my face.”

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Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Road | Tucson, Arizona 85712 | (520) 327-5461
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