Dog days are good days for patients at UCH

Volunteers, canines help boost the spirits of patients, staff
April 13th, 2016
UCH volunteer Alice Jensen and her dog Ebony cheer up patient Anthony Troutner.
UCH volunteer Alice Jensen and her dog Ebony cheer up patient Anthony Troutner.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Alice Jensen, a retired Colorado School of Mines administrator, enters the Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit at University of Colorado Hospital with a well-coiffed black standard poodle. Nurses flock to the dog, petting her, scratching her ears, and giving her treats.

The nurses’ attention seems to give pleasure to Jensen and her dog, Ebony, but they’re here on business. Jensen, a volunteer for UCH, checks in with the STICU charge nurse to see which patients are up for a visit from Ebony.

Jensen and Ebony have been visiting patients and hospital staff for five years as part of the UCH Volunteer Services Department’s Pet Partners program. Denver Pet Partners, a non-profit organization, provides training for dogs and handlers in order to prepare them for passing the 22-part skills and aptitude test that is necessary to becoming a certified Pet Partner.

The dogs’ job is to help comfort patients, but they need to be more than cute and friendly if they are to be allowed to wander the halls of the hospital and rub up against patients and medical staff. Along with their handlers, the dogs must pass a health screening. They must follow basic commands and be under the control of the handler at all times. Excessive licking is out.

Ebony is one of 10 pets and 11 handlers from the Pet Partners program at UCH who visit patients and staff throughout the hospital. They are more than simply cute and cuddly, said Jenny Ricklefs, MS, manager of Volunteer Services & Shadowing at UCH.

“Often these visits result in lowering people’s blood pressure. Patients comment that they don’t feel as much pain, and there are smiles where there weren’t any before,” Ricklefs said.

A welcome “paws”

On this Monday, Ebony’s first stop is with patient Anthony Troutner, who is being treated at the hospital after falling from a16-foot ladder. He’s got numerous broken bones and a punctured lung, but he smiles as Ebony nuzzles him.

“I love dogs. Animals are good for hospitals, I think. They cheer people up,” says Troutner.

For Ebony, being a Pet Partner represents a kind of second chance. Jensen rescued her just before her owner planned to euthanize her. A vet advised Jensen to keep Ebony mentally stimulated, a good practice for the poodle breed. That made Ebony a natural to become a Pet Partner.

Jensen shares moving stories about her time with Ebony at UCH – how they were able to comfort a mom who was forced to choose between a heart transplant and the twins she was carrying and another time when they were able to provide company to a teenage boy who had just lost his mother.

“We never know what we’re going to get into until we get here,” says Jensen. “Sometimes we get pulled in by a doctor or someone and we never make it to where we were going.”

Are you experienced?

The Pet Partners program, and the positive impact it has on patients, is just one of the many programs that will be highlighted during UCHealth’s first Patient Experience Week, April 25-29. Patient Experience Week, sponsored at UCH by the Patient and Family Advisory Council (PFAC), is a national event, held annually, to celebrate and recognize health care staff who positively impact the lives of patients every day. The week was started by the Beryl Institute, a global group dedicated to improving the patient experience.

Allen Wentworth, RRT, M.Ed., FAARC, director of Respiratory Care and co-chair of the PFAC Leadership Team at UCH, said the goal of the week is to not only recognize and honor staff but to also to help “elevate” people’s understanding of the Patient and Family Centered Care (PFCC) program, which began at UCH in 2005.

Surgical Intensive Care Unit nursing assistant Karley Beddoe gives Ebony a little love, and vice versa.
Surgical Intensive Care Unit nursing assistant Karley Beddoe gives Ebony a little love, and vice versa.

The mission of the PFCC and the hospital-wide PFAC, which includes patients, family members and staff, is to advise and inform hospital staff and leaders in decisions about operations and policies. The goal: include the patient perspective and positively impact the patient experience.

In addition to the advisory council, the PFCC also includes unit-, clinic- and service line-based councils that offer recommendations about patient care in specific areas of the hospital. The list includes the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the Cancer Center, the Birth Center, and Radiology.

Yet awareness of patient-centered care sometimes lags, Wentworth said.

“Our fundamental care delivery model is patient and family centered care but I don’t feel like that piece of information has been spread around enough to where employees can speak to it and know what it is,” he said.

Wentworth says he hopes Patient Experience Week will educate staff about the PFCC program and encourage them to identify potential council members.

“We’re really trying to reach out to individuals that can help us look at the way we deliver care and to make sure our group is diverse enough, that we’re not overlooking anyone’s needs,” Wentworth said. “We want to reach out to not only different religions and ethnicities but also to those with different types of disabilities.”

About the author

Joelle Klein is a Denver-area freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness issues.