Published Jan 1, 2010 8:00 AM
As volunteer Ellen Morrow and her goldendoodle Charley make their way through the hallways of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, visitors, staff and patients make it hard for them to move a couple of feet without being stopped. Everyone wants a break from the stress and heartbreak that happens daily in the hospital, and Charley and his owner couldn't be happier to give it to them.
Morrow and her pooch are part of the People Animal Connection, a nationally recognized program that brings teams — volunteers and their dogs — to the hospital to lift spirits and brighten the atmosphere, even if it is just for a brief second.
"The staff often ask for just a minute with Charley," Morrow says. "I feel a real sense of gratitude, getting a chance to watch him do this and see the joy, comfort and ease he brings."
The four-legged friends and their owners that take part in this program are carefully screened by the program's director, Jack Barron, who started with PAC as a volunteer in 2000 with his dog, Joey. He describes the relationship that exists between the owners and their dogs as perfectly seamless; constantly in tune with each other as they make their way through an ever-changing environment. In fact, PAC visits more than 40 units of the hospital, including the ER.
The nonprofit is funded by donations, not the hospital, but PAC was born at UCLA in 1994 and has grown to become a model for animal-assisted activity/therapy programs across the nation. Workshops, a behavior evaluation, and training classes are only the beginning of an orientation process that usually takes four to six months. The owners must also shadow another team, and it is only after they have completed the entire process that they can bring their dog in for supervised visits. Patients must have the approval of medical personnel and have a strong enough immune system to allow the therapy dog in their room.
Teams at the top of their game, like Chihuahua mix Simon and his owner, Jennifer Makely (who is also a nurse at the hospital), bring smiles to the sickest of patients. Some of the dogs are carefully trained to lie in a patient's bed if that is what the patient desires, and Simon is perfectly content to quietly snuggle with a pregnant mom who's been on bedrest for weeks.
"The happiness that the dogs bring is contagious," Barron says. "You see some really sad things here at the hospital, and they are doing a great deed to get people's mind off of the situation."
Kim Farrar, an occupational therapist at the hospital, has seen the mood instantly change when a dog is brought into a room where patients may be sitting by themselves, ignoring attempts at interaction. "It gets these people engaged," she says. "The PAC program really lifts spirits."