Love patrol: therapy dog cheers mom on standby

Aug. 23, 2017
Marta, a therapy dog at University of Colorado Hospital, and her owner, Louella Stoever, visit with patient Kate Buffington.
Marta, a therapy dog at University of Colorado Hospital, was rescued as a puppy and now lets anyone pet her. Marta and her owner, Louella Stoever, recently visited with Kate Buffington. Photo by UCHealth.

Kate Buffington never expected to be in a hospital.

She’s supposed to be starting the school year with her students in Fort Collins. She’s a special education teacher who supports students throughout the Poudre School District who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Get involved

The University of Colorado Hospital needs more therapy dogs and volunteer owners.

The dogs must be certified through one of the following programs:

For more information about volunteering, please contact Jenny Ricklefs at [email protected]

At home, she has a 4-year-old son, Logan, who loves Spider Man, her husband, Marc, a border collie, Ty, and a fish named Kenny. She thinks for a moment of Kenny and wonders if anyone is remembering to feed the fish. All of them must manage without her for a while because Kate, 34, has a special mission now.

Her job is to be as calm as possible here on the labor and delivery floor. She’s trying to be Zen so she can keep her twins cocooned inside her belly for as long as possible.

As Logan explained it, “Mommy, you need to be with the babies and the doctors right now.”

Kate and her husband are expecting a boy and a girl. Their due date was November 27. But, their daughter’s amniotic sac ruptured when Kate was just 25 weeks pregnant in mid-August. Kate raced to UCHealth’s Poudre Valley Hospital, but doctors there can’t care for premature babies as tiny as 25-weekers. So they flew Kate to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.  Remarkably, her baby girl can thrive without an amniotic sac. Her placenta is healthy. Both babies are being monitored and are doing well. So Kate’s job is to stay pregnant as long as possible. If she can make it to 34 weeks in mid-October, the babies will do much better.

That means she must be still and wait and be still some more.

All this chilling out sounds nice for a busy mom, but it can also be lonely and a little boring.

Marta, a therapy dog at University of Colorado Hospital, is shown shaking a paw.
Marta, a therapy dog at University of Colorado, wears a ruffle and her work ID. Photo by UCHealth.

That’s where Marta enters the picture.

Marta did not have an easy start in life. She’s an 8-year-old black Schnauzer, who was rescued from a pet hoarder’s home. There were 150 dogs in the home and Marta barked and barked when her new owner, Louella Stoever, rescued her back in 2009 when she was just four months old.

You’d never know that Marta ever had any tough times. As a therapy dog who visits patients at University of Colorado Hospital once a week, Marta is all business. And her business is love. She wears her proper work ID. (She actually has an official employee ID. And, yes, she must clock in and out to record her hours.) She also wears custom ruffles that Louella sews. This week, Marta is sporting a red, white and blue ruffle to display her patriotism. She lets anyone who wants to greet her touch her and fawn over her and get some laughs.

In Kate’s room, Marta hops up on the couch as Louella and Kate chat. Marta licks Kate’s arm as Kate describes her own rescue dog at home. Marta snuggles and gives Kate kisses on the nose. Louella is a retired teacher, who taught for 28 years, many of them at University of New Mexico Children’s Hospital in Albuquerque. Kate has taught for 11 years, eight of them in For Collins. She and Louella trade teaching stories and Kate tells her how some of her students have been making cards for her to let her know they miss her.

With this little moment of love and humanity, Kate gets a break from the medical talk and the worries.

“It’s nice to have an everyday experience and to pet a dog,” she said.

She thinks of her blessings and tears flow for a moment or two.

“I have the best family and friends. It’s crazy to be here, but we’re really hopeful,” she said. “Even though it’s not ideal, hopefully I can make it to 34 weeks. I’m really thankful that we’ve had so much love and support.”

When it’s time to go, Marta gives Kate one more lick and jumps down from the couch. She and Louella promise they’ll be back. Since Kate will be here for a while, Marta can be her temporary pet pal.

Louella spends a full morning with Marta every week visiting patients throughout the hospital. She regularly visits two cardiology units, the surgical waiting area and the antenatal floor where pregnant women like Kate receive care. Sometimes patients request a visit from a therapy dog. Marta always breaks the ice and Louella loves chatting with everyone. She makes a special point of spending time with people who are alone and have no family members. No matter whom she sees, she knows that she’s bringing some warmth.

“At least once a day and usually more than that, I get told that this was the best thing that happened all day,” Louella said. “It’s very rewarding.”

Jenny Ricklefs manages the therapy dog volunteers for University of Colorado Hospital. The program is called Therapy Trails. All dogs are trained and certified. Marta is certified through a group called the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. They can also be trained through a Colorado State University program called Human-Animal Bonds in Colorado or Denver Pet Partners. Along with Marta, some of the other dogs at University of Colorado Hospital include Julep, Jiggs, Auggie, Ebony, Rocky and Monty.

Together, they provide a roaming love patrol.

“There’s something about that animal-human bond,” Jenny says. “They bring heart to the care that our patients get. We do really good medicine here. This is a way to care for the whole person.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.