South Florida Hospital News
Monday November 20, 2017
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December 2009 - Volume 6 - Issue 6

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Therapy Dog "Liz" is Part of Florida Hospital’s Healing Experience

There’s a well-trained blond charmer named Liz at Memorial Regional Hospital South in Hollywood, Florida. What she offers reaches patients in a way that goes beyond the medical care that doctors and nurses provide. Patients request her by name, she can make people forget their pain, and she really likes her work. Liz, of course is a Golden Retriever trained as a service and therapy dog. East Coast Assistance Dogs donated the dog to the hospital. Memorial South funded the training of five "on-site" handlers for Liz.

The idea that healthcare is enhanced when comfort, nurturing and compassion are incorporated into the hospital environment is the central philosophy of Memorial South’s "Healing Experience Model". When you heal the spirit and mind, you will heal the body—is the guiding concept. One of the many services that grew out of this thinking is the Pet Therapy and Pet Visitation program—which is where Liz comes in. Says Heidi Rubin, Infection Control Specialist, "We wanted a therapy dog to calm patients down, alleviate loneliness, help diffuse upset and distraught family members, and also assist patients in the rehabilitation units."

Heidi Rubin was one of five handlers on the Memorial South staff who underwent the week of training with two service dogs selected by East Coast Assistance Dogs (ECAD). At week’s end, ECAD’s founder, Lu Picard, chose one dog she deemed most suited to hospital work. Liz goes home every evening with a caregiver who works at the hospital, although different handlers can work with her daily. The dog is primarily assigned to units in Acute Care, Intensive Care and the Rehabilitation Unit.

Liz’s typical day begins in the Rehabilitation Unit around 8:30 am. The dog works in speech therapy with stroke patients who have difficulty talking. Patients are instructed to give Liz commands, to which she happily responds. One individual in the Rehab Unit needed to learn to walk more erectly. The staff found that when given the dog’s leash the patient more easily stood and walked upright.

Stories abound at Memorial South about the many ways Liz can get despondent patients to smile, respond, and even momentarily experience positive feelings. One woman in the Acute Care Unit was diagnosed with Sickle Cell Crisis and had been constantly asking for pain medication. For the ten minutes Liz was in her room the patient was able to completely forget about her pain. The dog also spends time in the ER with patients who arrive injured and upset. Staff member, Mark reports, "Liz has the ability to calm patients down and diffuse their level of anxiety."

How does a service dog like Liz differ from the pets we have at home? Organizations like ECAD essentially start training dogs at 14 days old, and continue for the first two years of the dog’s life. Says Heidi, "Liz has been bred and trained to be handled over and over again. She shows the same love and affection to every patient, in every interaction." The dog wears a vest which signals to her that she’s working. She knows that a command can be given at any time while her vest is on, and Liz is anxious to please. Liz gets four breaks daily, following every two-hour work segment. At break time she’s taken to her room, which is equipped with squeak toys, food and water. Her vest is removed and she is given the command, "Liz undress." That tells Liz that she can now relax and just be a dog.

At Memorial South Liz actually has phone voice mail, called the "Bark Line," where patients can request a visit. Heidi explains that Liz has also been trained to snuggle. "Liz, snuggle," is the command the dog hears. Patients are told to put their knees together, tap their laps and say, "my lap." The dog then moves her paws along the person’s hips and rests her head on the patient’s chest. This kind of affection is something patients may get from their pets at home, and miss terribly while they’re in the hospital.

"The extra love and kindness that Liz gives our patients can sometimes be the breakthrough medication they need," says one staff member. A "healing experience" begins in these interactions—and can ultimately trigger other levels of recovery.

To learn more about Memorial South’s Pet Therapy and Pet Visitation program, contact Heidi Rubin, Infection Control Specialist, at (954) 518-5754, or Mark Kassner, Manager Cardio respiratory Services, at (954) 518-5771.
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