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Furry Volunteers Lift Patients' Spirits

Pet Partners at The University of Kansas HospitalNearly a dozen of The University of Kansas Hospital's 350 volunteers are true healers.

Take Ginger, once described as "a nurse by nature." Sporting her volunteer vest and ID badge, she will heal – and sit, stay and lie down. A Labrador retriever/redbone coonhound mix, she and handler Amy Bennett are among rotating pet therapy teams visiting patients Sundays and Tuesdays in Pediatrics, Adult Psychiatrics and Rehabilitation Services.

"Our pediatric patients love the pet therapy visits," said a nurse manager for Pediatric Intensive Care and Pediatrics. "For children who're with us awhile, it really gives them something to look forward to."

Hospital regulars since 2009, Bennett and her canine cohort have been evaluated and registered for animal-assisted therapy by the Mo-Kan chapter of Pet Partners.

"Patients just light up when they see Ginger and the other dogs," Bennett said. "We try to engage patients, take them out of the hospital environment for a bit and make things feel more like home."

Staff escorts pave the way, going room to room beforehand to determine which patients will benefit from a canine cuddle. When it's a go, the handler uses hand sanitizer while the escort helps the patient do the same. Then handler and dog approach the bed slowly, "reading" the patient's response and adjusting behavior. Hand sanitizing is repeated when the visit ends.

With border terrier Zoe in tow, Marcia Jones is another Pet Partners visitor. "Zoe is so small she's often invited onto the bed," she said. "I put down a clean sheet, and she'll lay her head on the patient's leg, using it as a pillow while they pet her."

"Studies have shown that just petting an animal decreases your stress hormones and lowers blood pressure," said hospital Volunteer Services Director Paula Gangel. "Patients and staff alike benefit from these special volunteers."

To learn more visit: mo-kanpetpartners.org.