Emory Saint Joseph CEO Heather Dexter with a therapy dog. She strongly supports expanding the pet therapy program and has a personal connection to therapy dogs. HELENA OLIVIERO / HOLIVIERO@AJC.COM
Photo: HELENA OLIVIERO
Photo: HELENA OLIVIERO

Hospital CEO knows power of therapy dogs from her family’s experience

On a recent morning, a brown-and-white Brittany dog and an English setter pooch happily wagged their tails in a new area for them at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital — an oncology unit where patients stay in the hospital during treatment.

The dogs and their handlers knew exactly which patients were seeking a visit: Burgundy paw prints placed on doors signal that yes, company from a furry friend is welcome, even encouraged.

The dogs — Kodi and Ranger — are part of a dog therapy program called Happy Tails Pet Therapy,” which started at the hospital about five years ago. But until recently, the program was limited to the outpatient cancer treatment area.

Every Tuesday, a couple of four-legged volunteers visited patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The program was so well received, some patients scheduled their treatments for Tuesdays to coordinate with the Happy Tails visits.

When nurses recently approached CEO Heather Dexter about expanding the program to the in-patient cancer treatment unit, Dexter didn’t hesitate in supporting a move toward incorporating more therapy dogs in the hospital.

Dexter, who has worked at the hospital for almost 20 years but took over as CEO only late last year, knows firsthand about the comforting powers of therapy dogs. In October 2000, Dexter’s younger brother, Patrick Duggan, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a serious car accident. Dexter remembers the touching visits from therapy dogs while Duggan remained in a coma. Before the accident, Duggan and his family had adopted a dog, a golden retriever named Charlie.

Although Charlie was not allowed to visit Duggan in the hospital, visits from trained therapy dogs were therapeutic for Duggan and the entire family. Dexter said her brother seemed more aware of his surroundings and even moved toward the dogs when present. She even saw improvements in his vital signs during the visits from therapy dogs.

“It was a piece of normalcy in an environment that was not normal,” Dexter said. “It gave us peace. It took our attention off the medical machines.”

Duggan passed away about a year after the accident. He was just 18 years old. After his death, his family honored his memory by volunteering his dog Charlie to join Happy Tails. Charlie completed training and went on to be a therapy dog for many years.

Dog therapy programs are expanding as the medical community places more attention on a more holistic approach to care.

Canine Assistants’ hospital dog program started in August 2009 with its first placement at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in 2009; there are now 11 therapy dogs working at the hospital. Happy Tails Pet Therapy serves other hospitals including Northside Hospital. Meanwhile, Piedmont Fayette Hospital launched a pet therapy program last September.

Dexter hopes to see the pet therapy program expand to other areas of the hospital.

“There is a component of care that is clinical,” Dexter said. “But there is a part of care that is spiritual and emotional. By bringing in programs such as pet therapy, we can care for the whole person: mind, body and spirit.”

On a recent morning, with his wife, Sonya, by his side, Mike Veazey, hospitalized at Saint Joseph’s Hospital for a recurrence of brain cancer, smiled when a couple of furry friends strolled into his hospital room. First, Ranger jumped on the bed and he quietly rested. Then, Kodi bounced into the room, eager for attention.

Sonya snapped photos on her iPhone and lauded the hospital for offering doggie visits.

“This is so neat,” she raved. “When you are in the hospital, you are looking for things to uplift you. (The therapy dogs) are an amazing gift of love.”

MORE: Read about Uno the therapy dog at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

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