When Debbie Watson needs a reminder of the tremendous impact she and her pet therapy dogs have made on our patients, team members and visitors, she can simply recall a specific, memorable encounter from years ago.
Debbie and Sophie, her therapy dog at the time, had visited a patient at Bon Secours St. Francis Downtown. The visit went well, but Debbie didn’t think much about it then. When they returned a week later, the same patient was still there and couldn’t wait to share his enthusiasm.
“I want you guys to know something,” the patient said. “When you were here last week, I had just had surgery, and I felt so bad. I was in such pain, but the dogs came in and made me feel better. There wasn’t a pill in this hospital that would’ve made me feel any better.”
“I’ve remembered that all these years later,” Debbie recalls. “It just takes one person to make it worth it.”
While that visit has stuck with her, the truth is her weekly visits on Monday afternoons are universally anticipated and appreciated.
Debbie has her Aunt Bobbie to thank for giving pet therapy a try. Her aunt was a rehab patient with us after breaking her hip and was also recovering from a recent stroke. She had trouble expressing herself then, but when Debbie visited, her aunt was very animated as she said, “The dogs, the dogs.”
“Pet therapy dogs had come to visit, and my aunt was so excited,” Debbie shares. “That had brightened her up so much. She said, ‘Sophie needs to do this.’”
Sophie was Debbie’s loveable golden retriever and was a natural for the program.
Debbie was working at the time as a credit union manager and didn’t have much free time, but she knew she had to give it a try. That was in 2009, and she’s been at pet therapy ever since with four different dogs.
“Therapy dogs have to be tested and go through observations,” Debbie explains. “They have to make sure they’re a good fit – not afraid of noises and good with people.”
After Sophie came George, a big, shaggy Labradoodle, whom Debbie adopted when he was 5 years old. He was simply made for the program.
“Of all my therapy dogs, George was the best,” Debbie says. “Everyone loved George. Everyone cried when he died in 2016. It broke everyone’s heart. Everyone knew George. The nurses loved him.”
Debbie now has another Labradoodle, Jake, and a young Newfoundland, Roxie, touching the lives of others.
They’re among the six or seven therapy dogs that visit the hospital every Monday morning. They meet in the lobby and are often greeted by our team members, who anxiously await their arrival.
“One staff member told me that everyone’s attitudes change when they’re there,” Debbie says. “They say it just makes their day. We have such a wonderful team. Everyone is so dedicated, and they just love being there.”
Susie Jeter, our volunteer coordinator, has witnessed the impact that Debbie and other volunteers make every week.
“Debbie loves this ministry and especially seeing the joy and love offered by our therapy dogs to our patients as well as our team members,” Susie shares.
Most of the therapy dogs also visit our cancer center and are greeted with the same response.
“There was a gentleman in a wheelchair who had finished treatment and was waiting for a ride,” Debbie recalls. “He was petting Roxy, looked at her and said, ‘You make me forget how bad I feel.’”
If Debbie could still talk with her aunt, she says, “I think she’d say, ‘See, I told you.’”
And as she thinks back on all these years of joy while volunteering with our pet therapy program, Debbie would agree.
This holiday season, we are celebrating by spreading the good news! Read more thankful stories, like this one, that feature our team members, patients and the wonderful communities we are blessed to serve.