Our Furry Friends Provide Cheer to Patients

March 29, 2012

The patient in same-day surgery one recent Friday was getting a little anxious about the procedure she faced.

Enter Charley – 85 pounds of dog coated in masses of luxurious white fur. So much a part of Providence Tarzana, Charley, a golden doodle (golden retriever and poodle) has his own official badge complete with a mug of his undeniably sweet, albeit hairy, face.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” the woman cried. “That’s the most gorgeous dog I’ve seen in my life!” The timing of Charley’s visit was perfect, her husband said, noting his wife was a little on edge.

Accompanied by his mistress Ellen Morrow, Charley is specially trained and certified as a therapeutic dog. He takes his responsibilities quite seriously, spending a few hours each visit comforting patients, performing tricks, even climbing in their beds to cuddle at a time when those we care for are at their most vulnerable.

He stepped to the mark on the floor when Ellen beckoned and responded with a “high five.” He did keep a close eye on the break room, apparently recalling the day he found cake in there. But he knows he’s on the job and continues his trek about the hospital, cheering the staff and comforting the patients, bringing enormous smiles to even the most seriously ill.

Patients, staff and visitors along their route pet Charley and share with Ellen their own dog stories and grooming tips. Ellen asks all to sanitize their hands with the Purell anti-bacterial wash she keeps to ensure Charley carries no germs as he makes his way through Providence Tarzana.

“Oh, my gosh!” said one oncology patient. “My dog is about the size of that dog’s head!”

“Thank you for coming. You made my day,” says a nurse.

“What a handsome fellow you are!” says a man, heading in to visit an ICU patient, the visible worry melting from his face.

The gentle giant follows Ellen into the infusion room where three patients are undergoing chemotherapy treatments. One woman wants to visit from afar, smiling at Charley’s antics. Another pets him and laughs, speaking in Spanish to Charley. A third patient is on the cell phone: “They’ve brought a dog in here! Now I’ve seen everything,” she relays.

Brianna, just 2 1/2, was laid up in Pediatrics fighting an infection. A head full of dark brown curls and a smile that sparkles, the toddler fell in love with the “doggie” named Charley. Most children that young are hesitant, Ellen said, but Brianna was thrilled when Charlie hopped in her bed and let the little girl cuddle him.

For case manager Robin Thompson it’s the unconditional love of a pet that makes Providence Tarzana’s canine star such a comfort not only to patients, but to those who care for them.

Ellen starts the visits in the hospital lobby where Charley is a rock star. It’s often a half-hour before she’s able to move on for all the people who want to meet this wonder dog.

“There are families and they are tense having a loved one in the hospital,” Ellen said. “This gives them strength to handle their visits with sick family. You see faces light up and you know most of these people are having a very difficult time.”

There’s no denying Charley’s charm. Experts have studied the bond between people and pets for decades and it’s widely held that interaction with therapeutic dogs releases oxytocin and other hormones in humans believed to contribute to healing, Ellen said.

In 1980, a team of scientists at the University of Pennsylvania found that the bonding between humans and pets resulted in lower levels of blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, anxiety and tension.

In stairwells between flights, Charley takes brief breaks. And he gets a few moments to “act like a dog” when he plays with ICU nurse Nicole Morrow, R.N., daughter of Ellen and staff cardiologist Douglas Morrow, M.D.

Charlie began his career at UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center five years ago at age 2. He pioneered pet therapy at Providence Tarzana a few months later. He’s recognized on Valley streets more for his distinct look than for his 15 minutes of fame in a cameo appearance in the movie “I Love You Man.” He and Ellen partnered as a look-alike couple in the movie – yes, she has the same golden blond hair.

At Tarzana, he’s known on every floor for his magic – the pediatric patient having a bad day breaks out in smiles; the patient depressed from days in the hospital lets Charley in bed and holds him close; and the dying man feeds this hero a dog cookie as his family gathers for his final days.

Ellen got Charley when he was a puppy and soon after a woman she met at the veterinarian’s office told her the dog had the perfect temperament to be a therapy dog. Ellen socialized him and trained and worked through the Delta Society for his national certification, which must be renewed every two years

His instinct, she said, is uncanny. He has a way of leaning up against someone when he senses stress and is always on target. His groomer calls him one in a million.

Charley is calm but eager to start his day and is exhausted at the end. He loves the sense of purpose, his mistress explains.