By Maria Fredericks
Your eyebrow might rise a little if you hear a patient say, “I receive pet therapy.” That is exactly what Sarah Jones, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher receives when she enters the Regional Cancer Center in Johnson City, for weekly chemotherapy treatments. Her pet therapist, a cute little brown dog named Jasmine Belle, is there on her lap to make her feel better during her chemo treatments.
“They can sense when you are having a bad day,” said Jones. ”They want to give you affection and they want affection in return. You need it. So it’s a good exchange of giving.”
Jones, who has had her bad days during chemo treatment, explains the relationship between human and animal.
“It’s a unique connection that is hard to explain in words,” said Jones. “It’s like getting flowers, except the flowers just sit there. The dog plays with you.”
Jones, a teacher at Dudley elementary in Bluefield, Va., noticed some pain in her hip in December 2011. On closer inspection the doctors discovered she had a tumor. Jones is on her way to recovery after receiving surgery in January 2012 and beginning chemo treatment in February. She said she is very thankful for the Mountain States Health Alliance pet therapy volunteer program.
“It helps on those rough days,” Jones said.
Jasmine Belle is a certified pet therapy dog. Miss Belle, a mixed dachshund and Chihuahua, was rescued from the Washington County Animal Shelter. She has been doing this work for a year. Cindy Bubar, Jasmine Belle’s owner and handler, said she really helps to distract the patient from their illness and helps to lift their mood. Bubar also said Jasmine Belle is great for helping to lift the spirits of the staff too.
At the Regional Cancer Center on Wednesday, Nov. 7, Jasmine Belle showed off her tricks for patients and staff. During her performance, she rolled over, bowed, waved and barked loudly.
“Inside voice,” said Cindy Bubar to Jasmine Belle, who then lowered the volume of her bark.
“This is what it is all about,” said Ed Bubar, Cindy’s husband and co-owner and handler of Jasmine Belle. They both take Jasmine Belle to Mountain States Health Alliance hospitals within the Tri-Cities area.
Ed Bubar describes Jasmine Belle’s interaction with the patients as rewarding and uplifting.
“You can see the smiles on their faces,” he said. “They light up and in that moment they are happy.”
Cindy Bubar tells how Jasmine Belle, who turns 4 next year, seems to enjoy her visits to the hospitals and the people she encounters. Bubar also explains about the different types of therapy dogs. She says that there are those that just give affection, but Jasmine Belle does more. She likes to demonstrate her abilities.
“She is a good performer,” Bubar said. “She engages people. This is what she does best.”
Bubar explains how actively involved Jasmine Belle is with the community. This summer she just finished a 57-show run in the production of Legally Blonde with the Barter Theater. In addition to her therapy work with Johnson City Medical Center, Regional Cancer Center, The James H.Quillen Veterans Affairs Medical Center and St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Jasmine Belle does a co-op for the Children Teach Program with Lake Ridge Elementary, where she plays Bingo with the children.
“The children love Bingo,” she said.
Bubar will ask her to grab a ball from a basket and bring it to one of the children, who calls out the number.
“She loves playing,” Bubar said. “She is good for about an hour. Then it’s time to rest.”
CC, a 6-year-old full bred Belgian Malinois has close to 600 hours of therapy and has been working for five years. Her owner, Chouree Counts, is a proud mama of the work CC has done.
“She comes from a working family,” she said of her dog.
CC’s own mother works as a drug dog and her dad is a police dog. Counts decided that CC needed to work, as well.
“She about swallowed my necklace,” she said. “Being a pet therapy dog gave her a focus for her energy.”
CC primarily works for Johnson City Medical Center in the Joint Replacement Center. Counts says the patients come out of surgery nauseated and in pain. CC helps take their minds off their physical discomfort, by doing a military march and jumping through hoops. She enters the room with a comedy routine to catch the patients’ attention.
“She does this limp to make the patients laugh,” she said. “They are happy and she helps get them back on their feet.”
Misty Spano, the program coordinator for the Joint Replacement Center, says the dogs help lower the patient’s blood pressure, anxiety and respiration. She notes a reduction in pain level with an increase in mood elevation.
“There is definitely a lifting of the patient’s mood,” she said. “Mostly we want to get them moving after surgery and the dogs help with that.”
Maggie Davis, who works for the General Psychiatry Unit at Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton, brings her dog, Coal, to visit the patients. Davis says Coal’s interaction with patients suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and emotional stress disorders has dramatically increased positive thinking.
“It helps with depression,” Davis said. “People laugh for the first time.”
Van Cooper, the patient-centered care coordinator for MSHA, has worked with the pet therapy program since its inception in 2006. He says the program is completely based on volunteers who generously give their time to MSHA. He is pleased with the positive outcome from the program.
“For a brief moment in time, the dogs are a distraction for the patients,” Cooper said. “It gets their mind off why they are in the hospital.”
Currently, the program has 60 dogs working in 14 MSHA hospitals in both Virginia and Tennessee. MSHA has partnered with PetSmart to complete a basic obedience class for the potential therapy dogs. After the training is complete, the dogs are eligible for certification through Therapy Dogs International. The program demonstrates the ability for the dogs to interact with a patient-centered environment. Once they receive their TDI certification, the dogs are allowed to enter facilities where pet therapy is offered.