By LOIS KINDLE
The way dogs connect with people may not be fully understood, but there’s no denying it’s powerful and therapeutic.
That’s why many hospitals across the country include pet therapy programs as part of their care, and St. Joseph’s Hospital – South in Riverview is no exception.
Certified therapy dogs have been shown to help improve the emotional well-being and physical health of patients by lifting their spirits and reducing their anxiety, depression and fatigue. They also provide comfort, encourage communication and offer a positive distraction from the boredom of being hospitalized, in general.
Wearing official hospital volunteer badges, its four pet therapy dogs and their handlers make short visits to patient rooms on their two-hour weekly rounds. And, sometimes, they come upon request.
Their mission is always to brighten the day of patients, visitors and staff members alike.
Riverview resident Bill Bergsma and his 6-year-old, long-haired German shepherd, Romeo, are one of four teams. They’ve been visiting patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital-South for the past three years, and Romeo has been registered and certified as a pet therapy dog for more than four.
Their volunteer “job” gives both of them a sense of purpose. “Every Wednesday morning when I get up and come out in my uniform, he’s there at the door waiting to go,” Bergsma said. “He likes everyone but, especially, the little ones. His specialty is kids. He can literally sniff them out from behind closed doors.
“I’ve had dogs all my life, and I know the joy they radiate,” he continued. “I just enjoy seeing people happy, and Romeo makes them happy.”
Kim Wallace, volunteer program manager, agrees. “It makes my heart melt when I see a child crying and then immediately stop crying when they see Romeo,” she said, adding, even adults respond to him in the same way. “I think the dogs are a great comfort, especially for children when they’re having blood drawn or taking medications. [The dogs’ visits] are mentally very good for patients.
“I’ve witnessed the joy on a patient’s face and how they light up the minute he walks into a room,” Wallace added. “He gets lots of hugs.”
The dogs’ visits are also a “huge thing for the staff,” she said. All of the therapy dogs receive training, certification and vaccinations before joining the pet therapy program at St. Joseph’s Hospital – South.
During the pandemic, the program had a series of shutdowns and restarts. But now, all full-time patients, except those in isolation, are eligible for a visit by the dogs, who are making regular rounds once more.
For more information on St. Joseph’s Pet Therapy Program, call the volunteer resource office at St. Joseph’s Hospital – South at 813-302-8000.