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Therapy dogs prepare for their return to VCU Medical Center

Posted at 1:55 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 13:56:25-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- After a one-year absence, one of VCU Medical Center's most beloved medical teams is preparing to return to work.

This team just happens to have wagging tails and wet noses.

The medical center's Dogs on Call program came to an abrupt halt in March 2020 with the onset of the COVID 19 pandemic.

However, this past week, dogs and their vaccinated owners are slowly returning to the West Hospital for training.

Among the trainees are George and Beth Adams, along with their Golden Retriever, Maggie.

"We're so excited that we are back in the program again," George Adams said.

As part of the training, Maggie spent the morning meeting with staff members in the West Hospital, where patients are currently not being treated. Several people were ecstatic to see her and greeted the cheerful golden with affection and cuddles.

The dogs have been sorely missed over the past year, as the pandemic has led to stress, anxiety, and uncertainty for medical personnel and patients.

For years, the Dogs on Call program has been a pleasant distraction and therapy for doctors, nurses, medical students, and sick patients.

"Healthcare workers especially, need us back in the hospital," program director Nancy Gee, Ph.D., said. "I've seen firsthand what our teams do and the difference they make. I'll tell you there's times that there's not a dry eye in the room. It's incredibly impactful in that moment."

Volunteer Pam Oaken-Wright and her mixed terrier Beckett share the same sentiment about the therapeutic benefits of the program.

"They make a huge difference that is entirely intangible," Oaken-Wright said. "She loves children. Once we got here and we started at the Children's Pavillion in the oncology unit, we realized that this is where we belong."

"I could certainly relate walking Maggie into those rooms and seeing those patients smile from ear to ear and just relieved to have someone besides a nurse coming into the room," George Adams said.

Until the pandemic, the Adams visited the hospital twice a week because they saw the impact Maggie was having on patients and hospital staff alike.

"There was a rush of a gurney and doctors trying to get a patient into the room and as they ran by, they said, 'you wait right there, we'll be right back!' Once they had the patient settled, they came back and sat on the floor and said, 'bring the dog to me.' Maggie just curled right up into them," Beth Adams said.

Dr. Gee serves as the Director of VCU's Center for Human-Animal Interaction, which houses the Dogs on Call program. She says studies prove that animal companionship decreases cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone but increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding, feel-good hormone.

"So when a human looks at a dog and you look into their eyes, that's when we release oxytocin," Gee said. "But what's amazing about this relationship, this bond we share with animals, so do they."

Thanks to a $50,000 grant from Mars Pet Care, the center is about to embark on a new study to see the impact that dogs have on senior citizens in rehabilitation centers.

"As you can imagine, during the pandemic loneliness was an issue, but even before the pandemic, loneliness was considered at epidemic proportions," Gee said.

The Adams family said they are excited to come back to work when the green light is finally given for the dogs to return to the main hospital. George Adams said Maggie is thrilled too, but just has one minor reservation about getting a bath before visits.

"The only part that Maggie doesn't like about the program is the bath," Adams said with a laugh.

The segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.