Area healthcare facilities look to pets to comfort patients


Animal enthusiasts have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of a furry friend in times of distress – and now an increasing number of health care facilities are taking note.

With medical centers, hospice facilities and hospitals implementing pet visitation, pet therapy is quickly turning into a viable program for volunteers and patients alike.

At Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville, a newly established volunteer visitation program was made possible by Grace Andersen, a longtime Baptist Health donor. Through the Baptist Health Foundation, the donation covers the cost of training, immunization and supplies needed for the participating animals. With a goal of 16 pets, the center believes in the power of the program and the relationship patients are able to form with the pets.

“The Pet Visitation Program is an integral part of the way we create an atmosphere that promotes healing and wellness in our hospital,” said Tracy McDougal, director of volunteer services for Baptist Jacksonville. “Enhancing the patient-visitor experience is our priority, and pet visitation minimizes stress and anxiety related to hospitalization for our patients.”

Baptist Jacksonville isn’t the only local health care organization that’s taken to pet therapy. At St. Augustine’s Haven Hospice, patients also have found comfort through pet visitations.

Annie Harder began as a volunteer with Haven last year. It wasn’t long after she started when she lost her mother to multiple myeloma and had to step away from volunteering. When she returned, she wasn’t alone; Harder brought along her 12-year-old dog, Graham, because she believed he might help the patients benefit from being around him the same way she did.

“He’s such a good dog, and he’s so good around small children and the elderly,” Harder said. “I thought he would be a great segue for me to get back into volunteering.”

As a pet volunteer, Graham pads gently from room to room at the hospice center, offering his head for a pat or tentatively licking the hands of patients who are comfortable with him. He and Harder are now part of a newly formed team that also includes Sharell Holverson and her Cocker Spaniel, Jenifer Star, who act as a source of optimism to the hospice patients. Soon to be joined by three more pets and owners, the pups provide a sense of companionship to the patients they visit.

Prior to joining the program, Graham and the other pup volunteers are evaluated to meet specific criteria through a process of interviews with the owners, training and behavior monitoring. Volunteer Coordinator Michelle Colee supervises each visit.

Haven Hospice St. Augustine Administrator Cathy Johnston said she’s “thrilled” at the prospect of having pet volunteers help serve the hospice patients and families.

“Often times, our patients have had to give up their beloved pets as their illness progresses because it becomes too difficult to properly care their animals,” she said. “So getting a visit from a trained pet volunteer is very comforting.”Graham and Harder have participated in four visits so far, which Harder says have been “wonderful” for everyone involved. Though it’s only the beginning, she feels confident about the emotional benefits of pet visitation.

“They give unconditional love,” she said. “They’re there for you no matter what and the patients seem to really enjoy having (Graham) because he seems to sense that they need a little extra love.”

As a volunteer, Harder feels it is a necessary to give back and work actively to ensure that the people of her community are never without help – and Graham joins her in that mission.

“I’m proud we have the opportunity to be a part of this because the hospice is such a vital organization to the community,” she said. “It’s not always about the end of life, but the quality of it – and this way, we can provide something helpful.”