The volunteers of the Pet Therapy program at Providence St. Mary Medical Center paws from their duties for a group photo. From left: Sandy Wemhoener, Otis, Don Kaminski, Bear, Mary Ann Polson, Bill Van Beek, Casey and Annie.
Photo by Donna Lasater.
For the past 25 years, the task of cheering people at Providence St. Mary Medical Center has gone to the dogs.
The canine volunteers of the hospital’s Pet Therapy program, that is.
Patients, family members and others around the hospital are encouraged to socialize with the dogs and their owners, as they are there to bring smiles. The four-legged philanthropists can help lighten the burden of illness and light the path to recovery.
The program originated at St. Mary’s in June 1988 as the Pet Loving Care Program. Cats were included at that time. Now, the job of looking after the well-being of the patients, families and staff is just for dogs and their handlers.
Long-time hospital volunteers Teresa Martin and Pat Hobkirk worked to get the program started.
“It’s my understanding that Teresa Martin did quite a bit of research about the benefits of patients interacting with pets,” said Volunteer Coordinator Lindsey Oldridge. After looking into the program’s potential, the volunteers decided to try it out.
Since then, the popular program has expanded with great support, Oldridge said. It enhances the healing environment of the medical center, she said.
The average number of volunteers in the program lingers around four people, along with their canine companions, who visit the hospital on different days.
“Our goal would be to have one dog visit everyday. It’s really good for the patients,” Oldridge said.
Volunteer Bill Van Beek has been with the program almost since its inception, having participated in the healing work since 1989. His dog, Annie, wears a watch on her front leg. She’s ready to show you the time and make you smile, he says.
Don Kaminski and his golden retriever, Bear, are well known around the hospital. Kaminski started volunteering with the program almost 15 years ago.
Sandy Wemhoener and her dog Otis, an Australian Labradoodle, began making the rounds at the hospital in 2012.
Rounding out the program’s roster, Mary Ann Polson and Casey serve as errand volunteers, helping patients and staff with their presence.
Aspiring volunteers must complete a series of steps in order to join the Pet Therapy program. “The owners have to go through the volunteer program and become a certified volunteer. The dog needs to have its vaccinations and a letter from its veterinarian about its good behavior,” Oldridge said.
Once they’ve been vetted and trained, “each dog gets their own badge so they’re official,” Oldridge said.
There are things to do and not to do, Oldridge explained. The dogs and their handlers know what’s appropriate. “Dogs are not allowed on the bed and in certain areas,” she said. They learn what side of the bed to stand on and how to carefully walk past the IVs.
In addition, each dog owner/volunteer has a bottle of hand sanitizer offered for anyone who pets the dog, to keep everyone comfortable about cleanliness.
Although they’re unpaid, the canine volunteers put a good deal of time and effort. Last year they logged 584 hours at the hospital, Oldridge said.
“That’s a lot of service. It’s very personal and fun. If you’re there in a hospital room and this fun dog comes in you can’t help but smile. It’s a real perk.”
Karlene Ponti can be reached at 509-526-8324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.