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Animal Therapists Help Stanford Hospital Patients Cope

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PawLuxury

By Jessica Bernstein-Wax For Mercury News

This holiday season has not been Teri Corpus’ happiest. The 51-year-old Lindsay resident has spent the past month in a Stanford Hospital bed far away from friends and family undergoing numerous procedures for her kidney cancer.

“I spent my birthday and Christmas here,” Corpus said as she lay in bed hooked up to an intravenous tube.

But a 10-minute visit from Chloe, a black Scottish terrier sporting a bright red bandana, seemed to lift her mood.

“Isn’t she sweet?” Corpus said, as Chloe’s handler, Ruth Hodos, lowered the small dog onto the hospital bed.

Chloe nestled in and was soon lying peacefully with her head on Corpus’ lap.

The 11-year-old pooch is part of a group of about 25 specially trained dogs, cats and bunnies who visit patients twice a week through the Pet Assisted Wellness at Stanford, or PAWS, program.

All participating animals undergo careful screening and receive certification through the nonprofit Delta Society before ever setting paw, tail or snout in the hospital, said Barbara Ralston, vice president for guest services. Their handlers also clean and sterilize them before each visit.

In addition to visiting individual patients at the main hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the animals participate in group therapy programs in the psychiatric unit, Ralston said.

Spending time with the creatures benefits patients and brings them joy, she said.

“They’re the best listeners and therapists,” Ralston said. “For patients who become very depressed and uncommunicative, it will trigger memories for them and really cheer them up. A dog is completely nonjudgmental and nonthreatening. It doesn’t come in with a syringe or anything like that.”

Program facilitator Nan Wetmore recalled one woman who refused to speak during her hospital stay until a program dog came and sat beside her.

Suddenly, the woman began talking freely and told hospital staff about her farm in Ohio, Wetmore said.

Studies have suggested that animal-assisted therapy can help a patient’s emotional state and even provide physiological benefits.

“Many people are able to relax when animals are present,” the Delta Society’s Web site says. “Tests have shown that the decrease in heart rate and blood pressure can be dramatic. Even watching fish swim in an aquarium can be very calming.”

Hodos, a Palo Alto resident, said she has seen that firsthand.

One cardiac patient Chloe visited was breathing very hard and appeared distressed, Hodos said. But after just a few minutes with the dog, “his breathing started evening out,” she said, adding, “The residual of the calmness and the visit actually is sustained over a period of time.”

Those benefits extend beyond the patients. While the hospital can be a stressful and chaotic environment for dogs, Hodos said that both Chloe and her corgi,
Willow, appear excited and happy when she takes out the red PAWS bandana and leash for their visits.

On the days Willow visits patients without her, Chloe hangs her head and waits mournfully by the door, Hodos said.

“She’s still at the door when we come home and then she gives me the cold shoulder,” Hodos added with a laugh.

Down the hall from Corpus’ hospital room, Jorge Rodriguez happily greeted Chloe from his bed.

Rodriguez, of East Palo Alto, said he lost control of his car early Christmas Eve and crashed on Highway 101. Now the 18-year-old soccer player must postpone entering San Jose State until he recovers from a broken femur and fractured clavicle — a process that probably will take six months, he said.

“I have two dogs, and it’s nice to have a little bit of company other than family and friends,” he said while patting Chloe’s head.

As for Chloe, she may go into semiretirement in the next year or so, but Hodos is already prepping her 2-year-old Scottish terrier, Rosie, for certification.

“I’ve always believed that these animals have incredible potential for human interaction,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to work with my dogs in a meaningful way.”

Because of high patient demand, Stanford Hospital is looking for more volunteers for the program. For more information, see the PAWS Web site at http://stanfordhospital.org.


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