Jeannie Sandoval plopped down on a cold, gray tiled floor in the intensive care unit at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
She was just outside her daughter’s room. Monica Sandoval, 21, had recently experienced a recurrence of leukemia. She was hospitalized weeks earlier with a 104-degree fever. Since then, she’d been fighting double pneumonia, her body connected to several machines, encircled by beeping equipment.
But, in this moment on the floor, Jeannie Sandoval smiled, stretching out her arms to greet Tidings, a new furry friend who works exclusively in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Egleston campus.
“A lot is happening in my daughter’s room, and when I see him, I’m really happy to see him. Petting a dog gives me some normal in an otherwise crazy world,” Sandoval said as Tidings rested his head on her lap, and Sandoval petted the big dog. “He helps chill me out.”
Tidings, a 2-year-old cream-colored and curly-haired Goldendoodle, is the 12th therapy dog at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. But, he’s the first one dedicated to the intensive care unit, the area of the hospital with the most fragile, sick and critically ill children. Tidings, known as “Ty,” also is the first therapy dog at Children’s matched with a doctor — in this case, Dr. Jana Stockwell, division director of critical care at Egleston PICU.
Before long, Sandoval returned to Monica’s room, but this time she was accompanied by Tidings. Monica, wearing a beige crocheted cap with a flower, rested, her eyes barely open. A soft smile spread across her face when she spotted Tidings. She reached out toward the animal, and all 66 pounds of the dog with big ears and deep espresso-colored eyes climbed into Monica’s bed. Monica placed her left hand on Tidings’ head, her right hand on one of his paws. Tidings quietly curled up to Monica, and appeared to drift off to sleep.
“Tidings knows you’ve had a rough couple of weeks,” said Jeannie Sandoval, who lives in Winder. “We knew you were sweet Monica, and now Tidings does, too.”
Tidings remained in the room with Monica and her mom while a team of doctors, including Stockwell, “made rounds,” discussing Monica’s vital signs, test results, medications, comfort level and goals for the day.
Stockwell first started thinking about getting a therapy dog about six years ago after watching Casper, Children’s first therapy dog, make a special visit for Creed Campbell, who landed in the PICU in August 2010 with a serious illness that caused his lungs to hemorrhage. Stockwell said Casper had visited Creed earlier at Scottish Rite, and staff at the Egleston campus made arrangements for the dog to visit Creed in the intensive care unit there.
“Casper would get into bed with him and love on him, and there were times when he was very, very sick, and you could see how much the dog relaxed him,” Stockwell said. Creed passed away in April 2012. He was 7 years old.
Stockwell never stopped thinking about the comfort Casper brought Creed, and about the comfort dogs could bring to patients, their families and staff. About 2,500 children are admitted to the PICU at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston campus every year. There are joyous moments, moments when children get better and go home. But there is also deep loss in a children’s intensive care unit. There are about 75 deaths in the PICU at Egleston every year.
“In terms of how sick the patients are, it takes a toll on your psyche,” Stockwell said. “In just two weeks (since Tidings arrived), I can see a difference of having an incredibly loving dog. For patients and families and also staff. He is a cuddler. He is like a dog in a fleece suit, so soft and so incredibly sweet. He is a dream.”
Tidings was born on an 18-acre farm in Milton run by Canine Assistants. The nonprofit trains service dogs and provides them to children and adults with special needs. Tidings was a year old when he was identified as a good candidate for Children’s because he is gentle, calm, confident in all situations, and he loves being around kids.
Tidings was taught in the Bond-Based Choice Teaching method, which focuses on developing a dog’s ability to process information rather than simply respond to commands. After he reached 2 years old, Tidings graduated from the program and was matched with Stockwell.
Tidings lives with Stockwell and accompanies her to the hospital every shift. Well, almost every shift.
“I was on call last Thursday and doing midnight rounds,” Stockwell said. “I usually do them at 10. I came in around 8 and I could tell he was tired, and we went home for a few hours. When I headed back at 9:30, I opened the car door and he was like, ‘No, I don’t think so’ and I didn’t push it.”
Recently, Stockwell was doing rounds and a 5-year-old boy was extremely anxious about getting a CT scan. It looked like the child might need to be sedated for the procedure, but then she enlisted the help of Tidings, who visited the child. She could see the child relax, so she came up with an idea: The child would spend a few minutes with Tidings before the scan and then Tidings would lay down on the child’s legs while his head was scanned. The child liked the idea, petted Tidings throughout the test, and the procedure went quickly and smoothly.
Every day, Stockwell and Tidings connect with other staff and therapy dogs in an employee garden to give the dogs a break. Stockwell also has a doggie bed in her office for Tidings to rest throughout the day as needed. A nurse educator at the hospital, Lisa Remshik, also was trained to be Tidings’ co-handler, if for some reason Stockwell can’t be with the dog. Most of the time, however, Tidings is by Stockwell’s side, and, when they go home, Tidings is just one the dogs (four of them now).
“When Tidings is not at work and doesn’t have his vest on, he romps and plays. But, when he gets his vest on, he is a worker,” Stockwell said. “Tidings goes with me as I do rounds, and this week, I am in an administrative role in my office. If somebody calls me or texts me and says a child wants to see Ty, we are there. That is part of my job now.”