NEWTON — Shortly after child life specialist Candice Lavien started working at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, she thought about the impact a dog could have. She and other colleagues who work with pediatric patients have seen children light up with occasional therapy dog visits. They wondered what a more permanent canine presence would do to boost morale throughout the hospital.
“Since then, we’ve been on a mission to bring a dog here,” Lavien told WBZ’s Lisa Hughes.
Then the pandemic wreaked havoc on healthcare workers everywhere. At Newton-Wellesley, hospital leaders saw the need for an even more focused staff wellness initiative. Suddenly, the idea of having a companion dog gained momentum.
Childhood Coordinator Camilla Sutter and her staff suggested it and met with Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Kevin Whitney, who loved the idea. Whitney took the proposal to the hospital’s leadership team who gave their unanimous support for a fundraising initiative that would involve the community in the effort to get a dog from the facility. They raised funds for the dog and his training at the hospital’s virtual gala in 2021. For employees who love dogs, the countdown was on. The hardest part was waiting.
How long would that take? What race would he be? How old would a dog be in the hospital? There were so many heated questions, so much anticipation.
A few months ago, they learned that their facility dog would be joining the hospital in May. More recently, they saw his photo — Buddy the golden retriever, 17 months, would become their full-time colleague.
On May 8, Lavien and Buddy’s co-manager, Jessica Mueller (also a child life specialist), visited Canine Assistants in Alpharetta, Georgia to spend time with Buddy at her school of training. His bond-based training relies on trust, some choice on Buddy’s part (he doesn’t do standard commands like “sit”, “sit” and “come”), and relationships.
Lavien compares this to the Montessori school: “It kind of directs the environment and we kind of direct it in a safe way. So it learns through your body language. What you say is correct, trusting you , he can learn to do and trust the environment in the hospital.”
The canine assistants explained that with this type of training, Buddy will be able to establish a therapeutic relationship with patients, families and staff.
Mueller anticipates the comfort it will bring to children in the hospital. “I think he’s going to be amazing, with him and his special training, he’s able to provide so many things. Like that pressure comfort – putting his paws on it during a procedure and proving that pressure. Being a distraction during a procedure They’re focused on the dog. They’re excited about the dog. They can forget they’re in the hospital. They can remember they’re kids. And that joy really helps with the pain too! “
Entering the hospital with Buddy for the first time on May 23, Lavien and Mueller saw the pure joy on their colleague’s faces. Nurses like Donna Mullen, who has worked at Newton-Wellesley for 49 years, lined up in the hallway of the Child Life unit to meet him. She couldn’t contain her excitement. “We’ve waited a year and a half for this dog and he’s perfect,” she beamed.
Another nurse called Buddy’s arrival the best day of her life. ER nurse Kathy Reda wept with happiness as she stroked Buddy’s silky fur and looked him in the eye. “He’s so handsome,” she whispered.
With all the stress of emergencies, Buddy provides a moment of calm. Twice in the past week, the number of emergency patients has broken records (250 patients one day, 251 patients the next), which means that staff are running from emergency to emergency. Just the sight of Buddy offered a chance to breathe and refocus.
Kevin Whitney said despite all the pressure staff face every day, Buddy’s unconditional love can help them tap into their own resilience. A single day of work, he can already see the difference on the morale of the hospitals.
Over the next few months, Buddy will bond primarily with his colleagues. Sutter explained that the goal is to make him feel like he has 3,000 owners among Newton-Wellesley Hospital employees. Eventually, staff members will be able to use the hospital’s computer system to request a “buddy visit” for themselves or for patients. He lives with Lavien and will work 40 hours a week. This work will include helping patients achieve their goals.
“For example, if there’s a patient who’s reluctant to walk, maybe if they walk Buddy down the hall, they’ll get out of bed,” Sutter explained. “If there is a patient who is really closed off and struggling, maybe Buddy can visit them and have them talk about their dog at home or their pets at home. there’s a kid who’s scared to get into a machine like a CAT scanner, Buddy can jump on the board, slide into the machine to pretend to scan a cat, then get down, and maybe the kid will be also encouraged to do so. We see Buddy as a tool to make this place less scary.”
Sitting on a park bench outside the hospital, nose to nose with Buddy, Lavien couldn’t be happier. “He’s so handsome. And he’s already so beloved.”