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Pet Therapy Program for Patients at Tri-City Medical Center

By Lucy Wheeler

There often comes a time during specific hospital recovery programs when intervention is required to move forward.

One such intervention at Tri-City Medical Center is the use of AAT (Animal Assisted Therapy), which can significantly reduce pain, anxiety, depression even fatigue in a wide range of health problems. Well trained animals can be a tremendous contribution to unlocking this process.

Mary Gleisberg, along with her Poodle, Prince.

In a hospital setting, this requires a detailed process, with the top priority being safety and infection control, assuring a safe path to a patient’s full and prompt recovery in an efficient manner.

In the early 1990s, Tri-City Medical Center adopted a Pet Therapy program into the acute rehabilitation portion of the Medical Center’s recovery programs. Paula Ballweber, a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist, oversees this program at Tri-City Medical Center.

Mary Gleisberg, along with her Poodle, Prince, check-in for the activities of their designated day in this program. They begin their rounds in the waiting room lobby where relatives and friends wait during surgical procedures.

Shar Pauley and Calamity Jane, a Golden Retriever therapy dog, have also been actively involved for several years. Both Calamity Jane and Prince have been special heroes in their own lives while being assistants as pet therapist dogs. Calamity Jane has had one paw amputated, and Prince has had two separate incidents with Lymphoma and has been in remission for the past four years. Their compassion for patients in recovery shines through in their interactions. Each of these dogs is twelve and will be retiring this year into a well-earned retirement.

Shar Pauley and Calamity Jane

Both dogs have become famous locally and nationally as to the positive effects which pets can provide for many patients’ recovery process. Each of the 14 therapy dogs has their calling card.

Getting involved in this program is not a simple process. The initial step begins with an observation of the dog’s temperament, personality, and responses to noise and distractions. The second step is a registration with a pet therapy organization such as ‘Love on A Leash,’ or ‘Pet Partners.’

The dog is then ready for a thorough training process within a Medical Center’s Pet Therapy procedure program, including adapting to the noise of Medical Center setting such as alarms and alert messages. This training process takes several months to complete and also requires three-month probation to finalize their participation. All therapy dogs must be at least one year old.

Supervised visits continue with patients who have indicated an interest in this program.

As the dogs obediently follow their handler through the Medical Center corridors, many staff greets the dogs by name and pause to say hello. The dogs are already familiar with the areas they visit, especially the final stop at the gift shop for a treat.

Paula reviews all required documents and maintenance involvement, assures dogs have had all required shots, and yearly health check-ups, while Mary coordinates the specific schedules with the 14 current therapy dogs and their handlers. Paula, Mary, and Shar all oversee any new applicants to the program.

There are many success stories, though some stand out in impressive memories from the program participants.

Mary remembers Prince and the miraculous strides made with a young man who had both physical and mental challenges, unable to stand alone at the onset of the therapy sessions. Over time, he was able, with the support, trust, and interactional games with Prince to gain the confidence to climb up stairways.

(Photo courtesy: Shar Pauley)

Shar tells one of her favorite stories of the phenomenal progress which Calamity Jane was instrumental in earlier in her career as a pet therapy dog at another location.

“A 4-year-old boy had fallen off his Grandfather’s tractor, and the distraught man accidentally ran over the child, severing his leg. The boy would not speak a word to anyone and was so afraid that his Grandfather would be in trouble.

Calamity Jane and I met with the child’s psychologist, speech therapist, and his mother. We walked toward one another from opposite ends of a long corridor. The boy was in a wagon, and as we approached his eyes got bigger and bigger. After not speaking since his accident, he belted out the words, “What happened to you?”

All I said was, she was in an accident, and the doctors and nurses saved her life by taking her leg. Now she is very happy.

That was all the child needed to hear to move him to explain to Calamity Jane that he too was in an accident. Then he followed in words I will never forget. He told this beautiful three-legged, big-eyed, compassionate dog that his Grandfather didn’t mean to do it.

(Photo courtesy: Tri-City Medical Center)

His medical team and his mother were overjoyed that he had finally been able to talk about his mishap.”

Unfortunately, on August 4th, Calamity Jane passed away. The photo in her memory shows her at a pet appreciation birthday party which was held by the auxiliary staff one year ago. Calamity Jane had participated in therapy programs in Dallas, Texas, before moving to San Diego and will be remembered by all who came in contact with her.

Photo courtesy of Shar Pauley

Photo courtesy of Tri-City Medical Center

Paula Ballweber speaks of her 13 years, as the pet therapy coordinator, as a privilege and readily admits it would be difficult to identify any one particular recovery over another. “Each story has been individually unique and effective in different ways,both with the pets and with their handlers.”

“When a patient, who appears depressed, turns to see the dog and gets a big smile on their face, it is priceless.” then she continues, “Research supports the positive results with anxiety reduction and reduced blood pressure as the patients relax. We get the opportunity to see these miracles happen nd often the staff benefits from the dogs’ visits as well.

Therapy dogs are examples of unconditional love, and when a patient is unsure of his/her condition and what’s going on in their lives, these therapy dogs can provide a great physical and emotional comfort as well as reassurance.”

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