Health & Fitness

Wagging tails make good medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital

At Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas in Overland Park, 12-year-old Diana Hisle of Leawood enjoyed a visit from therapy dog Hope.
At Children’s Mercy Hospital Kansas in Overland Park, 12-year-old Diana Hisle of Leawood enjoyed a visit from therapy dog Hope.

Hunter makes daily rounds at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Sort of like a doctor — until he jumps into a kid’s bed and gets his tummy rubbed. Doctors can’t do that.

Another difference: When Hunter, a 2-year-old golden retriever, walks into a patient’s hospital room, that child — sometimes a very sick child — usually breaks into smile.

Aimee Hoflander sees it often. She is a patient activity coordinator at the hospital and Hunter’s handler. She takes him around to visit the kids on 4 Henson, the oncology and hematology floor at Children’s Mercy. These are the really sick kids. Bad news, surgeries, isolation, chemotherapy, long stays.

Then Hunter comes through the door, bright eyes, tail wagging. Plop — right up on the bed.

“I’ve heard parents say it’s the first time they’ve seen their child smile in weeks,” Hoflander said.

Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City recently began using two specially trained golden retrievers to visit young patients and provide comfort and cheer. Hunter works at the hospital's Adele Hall Campus in Kansas City while Hope works at Childr

Hunter arrived at Children’s Mercy on Hospital Hill last summer as part of a new facility dog program. His colleague, Hope, arrived a couple of months later at the Children’s Mercy Kansas location in Overland Park. They both live with their handlers and travel back and forth to work. Daily commuters, with business cards.

The therapeutic value of dogs on sick children has been known for years, and other hospitals, including University of Kansas Hospital, use them. Dogs cheer up kids, and emotional health plays a factor in physical health. Reduces stress, calms, improve spirits.

So Children’s Mercy began bringing in dogs long ago through volunteer organizations like Pet Pals, said Missy Stover, the system’s child life volunteer and therapeutic programs supervisor who manages the new dog program.

But those visits mostly came one day a week or so.

Stover and others wanted more. They wanted the hospital to have its own full-time dogs and finally got them last year with Hunter and Hope, who were trained, beginning when they were pups, at Canine Assistants, an Atlanta-based organization that provides service dogs to individuals and facility dogs to pediatric hospitals across the country.

Maxine Hetherington, an oncologist and hematologist at Children’s Mercy, sees the value every day.

“When a child comes to the hospital, they miss their toys, they miss their sibs — a little, but they really miss their dogs and cats,” Hetherington said. “Having Hunter here has made Children’s Mercy a little more like home.

“He brings a calming influence to a frightened child, and that’s really important.”

At Children’s Mercy Kansas, Kenzie Nelson, 7, of Hiawatha, Kan., put it this way about Hope.

“She makes me happy.”

Hope can read a room, said handler Allison Bowring. When a child or even a parent seems sad, the dog will go over and put her head on their lap.

“She can tell what’s going on,” Bowring said. “When she’s at work — she’s on, and it’s amazing to watch.”

Bowring paused.

“She knows why she’s here.”

Hoflander tells a story about a teenage boy being asked by a schoolteacher about some celebrities who had visited the hospital.

Yeah, yeah, they were cool, the boy said. But mainly he wanted to talk about somebody else he got to see: Hunter.

“You know, the dog?” he said. “Aimee had to give him a treat to leave because he wanted to sleep in here with me.”

A morning last week at the main hospital, Hunter walked the hallway through Henson 4. Heads turned, people smiled. Everybody knows Hunter.

He’s happy, smart. He knows where to stand when the automatic doors swing open.

Want to pet him? Wait! Got to get hands sprayed first. The kids all know that. When the dog enters their room, the kids hold up their hands for Hoflander’s spray bottle.

First visit was Tyler Regier of Overland Park. He’s 3. He recently spent time in isolation, and when he got out he said, “Now I can see Hunter!”

Tyler’s mom, Tina, said the dog always cheers up Tyler no matter what’s going on.

On this visit, Tyler thought a Captain America book would be the way to go. Hoflander started reading and when she got to the part about defeating Hydra, Hunter laid his head on the floor and closed his eyes.

He must have already heard this story.

Next up was Jacob Schuetz, 15, from Olathe. Hunter jumped on his bed. Jacob smiled and leaned forward to scratch his ears. The dog sprawled on his back across the bed. Tummy time.

“You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?” Jacob said in a near whisper.

His mother, Melody Schuetz, watched from across the room. Jacob misses his dog at home, she said. Stress isn’t good for her son, and Hunter seems to relax him.

“Just to see him smile means so much,” she said.

After a few minutes, Hoflander had to shake the treat package to get Hunter to climb down from Jacob’s bed.

“Thank you for bringing him in,” Melody told Hoflander.

“Goodbye, Hunter,” Jacob said.

Hunter looked up at him and wagged his tail.

Then he left. Rounds to make.

Sick kids are waiting.

Donald Bradley, 816-234-4182

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