The cries that echoed from Room 813 in the William Jones Pediatric Unit at Providence St. Peter Hospital on Wednesday soon were subdued by a wagging tail.
Mandy, an 8-year-old Shetland Sheepdog who has been a therapy pet volunteer at the hospital for two years, stopped by the room of Kameryn Fagerness, a 1-year-old Rainier boy suffering from pneumonia.
Kameryn was dressed in a tiger-printed hospital gown. His eyes grew wide as the dog’s handler, Sherri Cote, picked Mandy up so the boy could reach her. His tears gave way to a smile and gargled sounds of joy as he sat on his knees against the bed, petting the dog’s long fur.
“My little man loves puppies,” said Kameryn’s mother, Heather Moxley. She and Kameryn’s father, Cory Fagerness, brought their son to the hospital at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday.
It was the boy’s second visit this month. Moxley said they first came Dec. 8, the day after Kameryn’s first birthday, and he was diagnosed with bronchiolitis. He was released and seemed to be doing better until Tuesday.
The family hopes to be able to go home Thursday, provided that Kameryn’s oxygen levels stabilize, Moxley said.
The boy has a house full of his own animals to return to, including a dog and two cats. But in the meantime, Mandy provided much-needed smiles for the entire family — the reason the therapy-animal program was created in 1989.
Volunteer Ann Howie and her dog Falstaff were the first in the nation to get involved in bringing dogs to hospital patients as a form of therapy and care, according to Animal-Assisted Activities & Therapy program coordinator Danni Sabia.
“It was so well-received and had so many benefits,” she said.
Sabia said animals help lower humans’ blood pressure in stressful situations, increase self-esteem and emotional stability in children, improve seniors’ quality of life and help patients work through anxiety.
The program receives financial support from donors to the Providence St. Peter Foundation. The program already has 55 human volunteers, 30 dogs and a cat; leaders are looking to expand by as many as 24 human-animal teams next year.
The hospital trains new volunteers twice yearly, a process that took Mandy and Cote 50 to 60 hours over three months to complete, Sabia said.
The next training session is scheduled for February.
“Teams have to pass evaluations before they go in to visit, and (we) make sure they have good teamwork,” Sabia said. “We have to make sure the animal wants to do it as much as the human.”
Mandy appeared more than willing to lend a paw. Wearing a blue hospital badge with her name and a pair of red bow pins on her head, the dog was ready to meet and greet in the pediatric ward.
“Sherri with her pet partner Mandy have come for a visit,” Cote told hospital staffers, waiting for the door to the pediatric unit to unlock.
Her first patient, a 6-year-old Tumwater boy, had fallen asleep before she arrived, so they changed plans and visited Kameryn after hearing cries from his room. His parents said it was perfect timing.
“I think it’s a great idea to bring animals in,” Moxley said. “If I were a little kid sick in the hospital, I would want to have a dog visit me.”
“You don’t even have to be a kid; it made me happy,” Fagerness added, laughing.
Volunteers are trained to find the safest and easiest ways for patients to have access to the animals, which can include putting the dog or cat on the patient’s bed, Sabia said.
The volunteers make notes of each visit, detailing what happened and how the animal was received.
“We have notes on every visit that has been made in this hospital,” she said.