I wear 2 hats in the hospital. First, I am a hematology/ oncology fellow. In this role, I am responsible for seeing consults, primary patients, and patients in clinic. There are hundreds of other heme/onc fellows around the country, all doing the same things that I do. My second hat is my more unusual one; I am also a registered therapy dog handler.
During my residency, one of our rotations was in a community hospital away from the inner city university where I did most of my training. At this community hospital, I was first introduced to therapy dogs. At the time, I had no experience with therapy dogs and really didn’t know anything about them. These dogs are normal house pets that do extraordinary things. To work as a therapy dog, the animals must be older than 1 year and have exceptional manners and behavior. Their job is simple: to provide joy and smiles. One day, a therapy dog may have an entire nursing unit doting over him; the next may be spent with a very sick patient and her family. Another day, a therapy dog and his handler provided answers to questions about “How is this dog here”…questions from me, a resident near the end of a 30-hour shift.
I have always had a dog in my life. While I was growing up, my family had many different kinds of dogs in our home: Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Newfoundlands, and Chow Chows. Once I was in college, then medical school, I had little time to raise and care for a puppy. That didn’t stop me from dreaming, though. I knew that an English bulldog would soon be my pet. I also knew that I could not raise one alone. I was lucky that my future wife Anjaly fell in love with bulldogs as well. Our engagement consisted of her receiving a beautiful diamond, and her present to me was my first dog of my own, an English bulldog puppy we named Princess Danger Curley.
Princess Danger was never intended to be a therapy dog. She came into our home as a pet, a goofball who immediately stole our hearts. The funny thing is that she not only stole our hearts, but that of anyone who met her. She would roll on her back and kiss faces, and was a sweetheart to everyone she met. She left us no choice in the matter—she was clearly born to be a therapy dog! Waiting until she was a year old seemed like overkill, since she was ready at 8 months. Within a month of her first birthday, we scheduled her session to become certified. After 3 sessions, we had our own certified therapy dog.
We didn’t start small. We applied for her to be one of HUP’s Pups at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). Her certification and vaccine reports were a start, but were not enough for HUP. She underwent a full veterinary examination and passed with flying colors. Her next test was with a veterinary behavioral psychologist, the final test prior to her entering the hospital. We were not surprised that she did not disappoint. She had her ID card picture taken the very next day. She was now a hospital therapy dog with patients to see.The first day we took her to the hospital, my nerves were on edge. I was entering not as a doctor, not as a patient, but as a handler. My sole responsibility was to make sure that my dog was well behaved and appropriate. Her first assignment was the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) where the head of the therapy dog program walked us through the unit. She gave her love to the nurses’ station and proceeded to see patients. She did this for months, approximately once a week. Her visits lasted between 90 minutes and 2 hours (which is standard for therapy dog visits). Patients laughed, cried, and told me about their dogs. Danger smiled, rolled around, and loved every moment of the scratching and attention she received. She was a rock star at HUP, but we were both leaving to a new city and job at West Virginia University (WVU).I started my hematology/oncology fellowship at WVU and immediately loved what I was doing. Oncology was truly my calling, and each day that passed showed me that I had made the right decision. Therapy dogs were conspicuously absent at WVU and