MUSC News Center
Therapy dog helps traumatized patients, comforts families
By Mikie Hayes | MUSC News Center | December 10, 2014
As the woman sat in the Emergency Department waiting to be examined, Lucky, an MUSC therapy dog, moseyed over to say hello. She petted the curly five–year–old white “schnoodle’s” head and the two became fast friends. Suddenly, Lucky backed away from her and looked at his handler–owner, Al Hoffman, who recognized this as strange behavior for his dog. Hoffman got a nurse’s attention and later learned the patient’s blood sugar was dangerously low.
That behavior, Hoffman said, is not unusual for Lucky. Therapy dogs routinely call attention to health issues, sometimes saving the lives of humans, by alerting others to problems before they even occur.
Dogs like Lucky have a superior sense of smell, and often before a person even begins to feel physical symptoms, dogs can pick up on an odor released when there is a change in a person’s blood sugar levels. This happens, according to Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, program director of the Animal Behavior Department of Clinical Sciences at Tufts Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine, because the body releases chemicals, like ketones, in response to hypoglycemia. Like narcotic dogs that sniff out drugs or search–and–rescue dogs that detect people, some dogs appear to be able to recognize the unique odor of certain chemicals released by the body.
Remarkable contributions like this resulted in the Charleston Regional Business Journal adding service and therapy animals as a new category to the annual Health Care Heroes awards. Lucky was honored as the organization’s first non–human recipient.
Lucky and Hoffman have been volunteering at MUSC since February of 2013 and have logged nearly 1,100 hours of service. Melissa Kubu, manager of Volunteer & Guest Services for the MUSC Children’s Hospital, presented Lucky with his Health Care Hero award. She said, “Their work here has made a tremendous impact on our patients, families and staff. Most of their work has been in the ICUs working with trauma patients, chronically ill patients, and end-of-life care. Their passion for what they do shows in their everyday interactions. The happiness they bring means everything during these high-stress situations encountered every day. Parents of patients can be having the worst day and that all changes when they see Lucky walking in the door.”
There are many reasons that patients rely on Lucky for comfort. Recently, a boy in Children’s Hospital would not get out of bed and walk. His doctors and nurses tried to get him to take steps with his walker, but he would cry, sometimes scream, and refuse. Lucky and Hoffman were called in to help. Lucky spent some time earning the boy’s trust, then Hoffman showed him how to hold the lead on Lucky’s leash while he held the other lead. Because the little guy really wanted to take Lucky for a walk, he gingerly got out of bed, and flanked by three nurses and Hoffman, slowly walked Lucky down the hall, going further than anyone thought he could. It wasn’t long until the little patient was walking normally again.
Hoffman also remembers a boy who was admitted to the Children’s Hospital after almost drowning. Doctors tried to get him to speak to them, but he was suffering from post–traumatic stress disorder and wouldn’t utter a word. Lucky came for a visit and sat right next to the boy for almost 20 minutes. Hoffman said: “Once I saw that the young boy was responding to Lucky’s presence, I asked his name. He opened up and told me his whole life’s story,” Hoffman said. “Lucky has that effect on people; they feel safe with him.”
Because of his signature brand of comfort and encouragement, Lucky is often called in for end–of–life concerns. He visited a stroke patient recently who greatly enjoyed his company. Soon thereafter, the patient lapsed into a coma. Lucky’s impact had been so great during his first visit with them, the family made a special request for him to spend time with them in the ICU.
Family members came and went during Lucky’s visit; other times all eight were all in the room at the same time. Lucky stayed right by the patient with his fuzzy head resting on the man’s arm. The family was comforted by the fact Lucky was there.
After spending nearly seven hours in the ICU with the family, the medical situation changed. Lucky’s senses are so keen that as the patient died, Lucky lifted his head from the man’s arm and looked at Hoffman, as if to share the sad news. Hoffman explained that it’s not unusual for therapy dogs to know when a human dies. As he and Lucky left to allow the family to grieve privately, the family thanked Lucky and Hoffman for their kindness and support.
Therapy dogs routinely spend two hours at a time with patients. Seven hours, however, is a very long day for a pup. Hoffman said, “He does fine, but I can tell when he’s getting tired. Sometimes it’s not the physical part, it’s more the emotional part.” Therapy dogs can feel the stress of a situation, just like humans, and need time to recuperate.
Because of his good nature, Lucky is able to endure more time around difficult cases than some dogs. Still, he needed time to decompress after such an exhausting experience. Knowing the dog’s needs and cues comes down to the relationship between the dog and the handler.
Hoffman said, “The combination of the right dog with the right handler is critical. Lucky is a calm and dedicated dog. I know his moods, and I can anticipate his behavior. At home, he is more energetic, but the minute he puts on his bright yellow service vest, he knows he it’s time to go to the hospital and do his job. The handler also needs to be as comfortable in hospital settings as the therapy dog — around hospital equipment, respirators, dialysis machines.”
Hoffman is proud of the fact that Lucky’s calm nature and dependability have earned him the respect of MUSC staff, who have no hesitancy allowing Lucky to be present during any challenging situation, even in the ICU. According to nurses they have worked with, Hoffman and Lucky help elevate the level of care they are able to deliver by being present during these stressful times, calming the patients and caregivers.
Considered “a unique pair,” Lucky and Hoffman are able to work with a broader range of patients due to their level of experience and knowledge. Specifically, Hoffman has been able to help the Pediatric ICU better utilize pet therapy with sicker children by incorporating protocols from other hospitals and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Hoffman was called in to help revise MUSC’s Pet Therapy Policy.
The reason Lucky is requested so frequently, according to Kubu, is first because of his experience and predictably cheerful disposition, and second, because Al is an understanding, experienced and confident handler. Hoffman worked in a hospital in Connecticut and one in Virginia that is considered one of more advanced in the country in its use of therapy animals.
While patients love Lucky, and he lifts their spirits and helps them forget for a time what they are experiencing, Hoffman said therapy dogs are capable of more than what they're able to do at MUSC.
Hoffman said, “At the hospital in Fairfax, they do some of most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I watched a dog coordinator call an 80–pound Labrador retriever up on the bed of a coma patient. Usually you see a dog lick someone’s hand, but this dog jumped on the bed and walked all over patient. Patients have been revived using this technique. At Duke, they had a therapy dog in the operating room as he could detect which particular anesthesia agents a little girl was allergic to. Incredible.”
Hoffman and Lucky always make themselves available for MUSC patients and work days, nights and even weekends. It’s a labor of love for Hoffman, who volunteers his time at MUSC.
Hoffman would like to see more advanced techniques utilized at MUSC and more therapy dogs. He is in the process of collaborating with a trainer to start a Pet Partners - formerly known as Delta Society — school in Charleston and will serve as the dog evaluator. Lucky is the only Delta dog at MUSC and is retested every two years.
Whether he’s calming a little girl with lupus who shakes uncontrollably, providing a sense of caring for a young patient nearing the end of life, or alleviating anxiety in an agitated patient, Lucky is there for the patients and their families. Hoffman said, “He lies right by them. Most doctors and nurses want Lucky there. I’m proud that we’ve been able to make such an impact in the lives of the patients and their families.”