Medical students Maltish Lorenzo and Parisa Fallah were recently catching up on studying in the Brigham Education Institute (BEI) Knowledge Center when a four-legged study break padded in.
Oliver, a 7-year-old Golden Retriever and certified therapy dog, had arrived for a “drop-in” pet therapy session at the center on Feb. 7. The event series is one of several ongoing initiatives across the Brigham aimed at improving wellness and reducing burnout among faculty, staff and trainees.
Unlike service animals trained to assist an individual with a disability, therapy animals like Oliver are brought to hospitals, schools and other places to provide comfort for anyone who would like to pet, talk to or otherwise interact with a therapy animal.
Lorenzo and Fallah weren’t aware their study session at the Knowledge Center would fall in the middle of pet therapy. But as soon as Oliver came in, they joined several other BWHers who flocked to him with smiles and cuddles.
“One of the things that medical students and doctors don’t often prioritize is making time to relax and disengage from work and stress,” said Lorenzo. “This surprise for us was a blessing because it basically forced us to relax.”
Fallah agreed: “These days can be really long, so it’s nice to have an excuse to take a few minutes to pet a happy dog and talk to people,” she said.
Making time for self-care and wellness are important for one’s emotional well-being, both personally and professionally, said Erik Alexander, MD, executive director of the BEI.
“There are a lot of emotional ups and downs that occur in health care training because we deal with very complex and often sad situations,” Alexander said. “When Oliver comes into the room, you look around and quickly see the joy on people’s faces. Engaging with Oliver provides an extremely valuable outlet. It takes your mind away from your daily stresses and provides a sense of community as people naturally gather around him and chat.”
Anish Mehta, MD, an Internal Medicine resident, was happy to take a break to pet Oliver and send a text message to fellow residents encouraging them to join him at the recent session.
“I was working down here and then was pleasantly surprised to see a Golden Retriever walk in,” Mehta said. “It just makes you smile. It’s a nice way to destress by momentarily focusing on something other than the work ahead.”
Britt Simonson, a medical education program manager in the Department of Medicine, said it’s a delight to see Oliver bring happiness to so many people with his friendly, calming nature.
“Oliver’s presence is so uplifting. When he’s here, everyone is smiling,” she said. “He helps residents and students keep things in perspective and be reminded of the importance of work-life balance.”
Providing Warmth and Comfort
Although pet therapy is hosted by the BEI, everyone at BWH is invited to visit the Knowledge Center and meet Oliver during his drop-in sessions, which are currently held about every other week.
Oliver, who has an official BWH ID badge, has been a therapy dog at the Brigham for several years, occasionally “rounding” on CWN 7, the Orthopaedic Surgery unit, to visit patients and staff who would like to interact with him. Outside of the Brigham, he has also visited with local schoolchildren, college students and Boston Marathon bombing survivors.
When he’s off the job, Oliver is the Alexander family’s pet. Alexander’s daughter, Caroline, spearheaded efforts to have him trained and certified as a therapy animal and championed bringing him to the Brigham. Caroline recently became a BWH volunteer and serves as Oliver’s primary handler while he’s at work.
“We realized early on that Oliver carried a special trait of being able to engage in a loving way with everyone and to receive that love with warmth and comfort – providing therapy to so many,” Caroline said.