JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Lillian Shirley traveled from central Florida to Jacksonville for treatment of a kidney problem because of Mayo Clinic's efficiency. While waiting for an endoscopic procedure on the fourth floor of Mayo Clinic Hospital, Shirley received an additional benefit from an unexpected, four-legged visitor.
"I looked at him straight in the eye and told him what pretty brown eyes he has," Shirley says. Her earnest, "face-to-face" visitor answers to the name of Sunday, and he's part of the Caring Canines program at Mayo Clinic. The volunteer program features specially trained dogs and their owners who "meet and greet" patients and visitors at the clinic.
Clinical efficiency brought Shirley to Mayo, but Sunday provided an additional empathic experience that won't show up on her hospital bill.
In a waiting area full of people, Sunday came right up to her, allowed her to hold his face in her hands and held her gaze, accepting her compliment with grace, silently letting her know everything will be alright.
In the same waiting area, Wanda Aills sat with her sister-in-law and other family members awaiting news of her brother's surgery. Aills' face lit up when Sunday arrived, and he responded by walking in her direction and gently placing his paw on her lap.
"I felt a sense of calm," Aills says. "Interacting with a therapy dog takes you out of the situation you're in, even for a few minutes. I've heard of using therapy dogs in a hospice setting, and I was surprised they incorporate them in a hospital. But it makes sense — they say relieving stress is the beginning of healing."
The principle of integrated medicine and of healing body and soul is embedded into the philosophy of Mayo Clinic. Programs that support art, music and pet therapy are embraced at all three Mayo Clinic sites in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota. At Mayo Clinic Florida, the Caring Canines began visiting Radiation Oncology in 2011. As the benefits became evident (supported by patient and staff surveys), more volunteers and their dogs joined the program.
Currently 18 dogs and their owners volunteer in patient waiting areas in Radiation Oncology, Surgery and Diagnostic Radiology. Seventeen other teams are on a waiting list for the required classes.
"People expect efficient and compassionate care at Mayo Clinic, and the Caring Canines bring an extra benefit to their experience," says Nancy Skaran, international administrator and one of the program's founders. "They provide a welcome distraction from medical procedures in so many ways — entertainment, nurturing, mental stimulation and decreasing anxiety."
Kristi Leonard is the owner of Sunday, a soft and calm 3-year-old goldendoodle (with the pretty brown eyes). She says one patient scheduled her radiation treatments around Sunday's volunteer day, just so she could spend time with him.
"We've been volunteering every Thursday for the past two years," says Leonard. "One of the requirements is that the dog must be bathed within 24 hours before coming in. We must offer everyone who touches the dog hand sanitizer — not so much because of the dog but because of how many people interact with the dog during a visit."
The Caring Canines wear their own Mayo identification badge, and they must pass several tests before being admitted to the program.
"We went through eight weeks of training where not only does the dog get trained, but the owner must learn how to read his signals," Leonard says. The dogs and owners are trained to handle different stressful situations such as loud noise or monitor beeping to ensure the dog is calm enough to be in a clinical environment. Visits to clinical areas can't exceed 90 minutes to allow the dogs to diffuse some of the energy they absorb from humans.
Leonard is a stay-at-home mom of three who had previous experience with therapy dogs. She says volunteering at Mayo Clinic gives her the chance to have a flexible schedule and be involved in the community.
"Sometimes I feel like I get more out of it than the patients do, and there are some tender moments," Leonard says. "I just know that Sunday was put on this earth to do this. I'm just the one at the other end of the leash."
Lindy is a trim, 5-year-old golden retriever who gets three to four miles of exercise daily. She loves those jaunts, but it's coming to Mayo Clinic that really gets her excited.
Lindy and her owner, Joan Streightiff, joined Caring Canines in November 2012. After retiring from a high-stress career with management responsibilities, Streightiff was more than ready for Caring Canines. "I wanted something more low key – and something with Lindy," she says. "She knows Mayo Clinic and gets excited when we turn into the parking lot. It starts from the time we get out of the car — people smile and wave. Patients have even started recognizing her when we walk through the halls." A recent highlight was a hallway encounter with seven children, four of them with a potential transplant patient. Lindy patiently let each one pet her. "Is she a helper dog?" one of them asked.
Lindy has her routine when visiting Diagnostic Radiology — always greeting staff members first. She loves to be petted and turns her back to patients so they can reach her easily. "If she sits on your foot, that means she likes you," Streightiff says.
Each dog and owner is tested and registered through a national organization. They also go through Mayo Clinic's volunteer training and orientation.
"The bottom line is that because of these wonderful volunteers and their dogs, the cost for the program is zero dollars," Skaran says. "But the benefits to patients and their families are priceless."
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