As Caroline Alexander recently walked her 8-year-old Golden Retriever, Oliver, a certified therapy dog at the Brigham, to his next visit with patients, it was like a celebrity had arrived on the Pike. Dozens of people stopped in their tracks to greet one of the Brigham’s most recognizable four-legged friends.
“It’s the best feeling knowing Oliver’s presence is making someone’s day every time we visit the hospital,” said Caroline, 17, a Brigham volunteer and high school senior who serves as Oliver’s primary handler.
That special moment on the Pike last month was one of countless that Caroline has witnessed over the past six years in bringing Oliver for regular pet therapy sessions with patients and their families, as well as faculty, staff and trainees. First introduced as an ad hoc arrangement with just Oliver, the Brigham’s pet therapy program has since grown to include three dogs, and a fourth will soon join their ranks. Formally relaunched in partnership with the Office for Sponsored Staff and Volunteer Services (OSSVS) and several other departments, the program is now called Brigham Buddies.
During a ceremony to celebrate Brigham Buddies’ official kickoff, Oliver and his pals — fellow certified therapy dogs Jameson, 2, a Shetland Sheepdog, and Emily, 6, a Golden Retriever, along with their handlers — came together in the Fish Rotunda before making their rounds throughout the hospital on Sept. 26.
The three dogs received new vests — designed by Caroline, who is also a driving force behind the program’s overall creation — that include a Brigham Buddies patch and a Pets and People Foundation patch. The latter is a nonprofit, volunteer organization that provides pet therapy services in eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. The Brigham’s therapy dogs and their handlers work with Pets and People to become certified as therapy animals, and their handlers undergo volunteer training and onboarding through OSSVS. Caroline designed the vests, which are a bright blue color, to be easily recognizable at the Brigham. She wanted to make sure that people who see the dogs wearing these vests know that they can come up and say hello to the dogs.
During the celebration, Caroline thanked everyone who helped her bring the Brigham Buddies to fruition. She’s excited to continue expanding the program to include more dogs and pet therapy offerings for the Brigham community.
“It’s so meaningful to make the program official,” Caroline said. “We were able to create the vests for our dogs that, together with their Brigham ID badges, will make them easily identifiable at the Brigham.”
Loving Companions in Healing
The Brigham’s therapy dogs visit the hospital each week and are always accompanied by their handlers. The dogs must be on a short leash and follow special protocols to ensure that patients and the dogs have an enjoyable and safe experience. In addition to visiting patients, the dogs frequent the Brigham Education Institute’s Knowledge Center, which holds monthly pet therapy and wellness sessions for faculty, staff and trainees.
After the recent celebration, Oliver and Caroline visited the Orthopaedics and Trauma unit in the Connors Center for Women and Newborns (CWN) to see patients and staff who wanted to interact with Oliver. Among them was Denine Spurill, a patient recuperating on CWN 7, who enjoyed her visit with Oliver. Despite having previously been fearful of dogs, Spurill said Oliver’s gentle nature immediately put her at ease and she welcomed his visit.
“Oliver made me feel a lot better,” Spurill said. “I loved being able to pet him and spend time with him. He’s so friendly. I wish he could have stayed longer.”
MaryKate Hegarty, MSN, RN, nurse director of CWN 7, Orthopaedics and Trauma, and CWN 8 North, Gynecology Surgical Oncology, said it’s gratifying to see so many smiles when the Brigham Buddies arrive.
“Pets definitely have healing qualities with their upbeat and comforting nature,” Hegarty said. “They provide our patients, many of whom have been here for weeks, with a connection to the outside world and a distraction from the stress of being in a hospital.”
Observing Caroline and Oliver visiting patients, Caroline’s mother, Karine, said how proud she is of her daughter for creating the program.
“I am so happy for Caroline and the Brigham Buddies team,” she said. “Each time they are here, they are able to add positive energy to the hospital and help others heal.”