The Healing Power of Pets

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When Carolyn Raborn’s life was forever changed by a car accident nine years ago-which took the life of her husband and left her paralyzed from the waist down-it would be the staff at Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and several loving four-legged visitors who would give her motivation and hope to recover.

carolyn

Carol Raborn with Sadie and Jewels, owned by volunteer Pam West.

From the first week of her seven-week stay at Siskin Hospital, Raborn was able to visit with several dogs and a cat named Poobah each week as part of the hospital’s pet therapy program. For Raborn, this connection to animals was meaningful on many levels. Prior to her accident, she and her husband had raised and trained Siberian Huskies for search and rescue operations, so dogs had been a big part of her life.

“I really did miss my dogs when I was here as a patient,” says Raborn. “It was very nice to be in therapy and have the animals come around. You can pet and love on them, and it takes you away from what is really happening for a few minutes. It is like having a little piece of home.”

Raborn was so inspired by her stay at Siskin Hospital that she is now an active volunteer, working part-time at the front desk where she gets to greet patients, visitors and the dogs who were so important to her journey of recovery.

“I just want to be able to give back to a place that has given me so much,” says Raborn. “They really give me a way to live my life as normally as possible. I am back to life as close to the way it was before my accident.”

Holistic Healing
Siskin Hospital has offered a pet therapy program for over 17 years as part of its holistic approach to healing that focuses on the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of patients facing life-altering challenges and change. Therapists can use animals to help patients improve range of motion, strength, endurance, balance, mobility, sensation, speech, and other skills.

“Pet therapy is a unique program that allows therapists to focus on meeting therapy goals in a loving and nurturing manner,” says Amy Burba, OTR/L, Occupational Therapy Supervisor at Siskin Hospital. For example, a patient who needs to improve range of motion can be challenged to reach down and pet a dog, a patient with speech difficulties can try to give a dog across the therapy room.

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A patient gets a nuzzle from Molly, an affable Newfoundland owned by Rick Hall.

“In addition to the physical benefits of pet therapy, patients from a connection with the animal, reducing stress and building self-esteem through the animal’s unconditional acceptance. There is something magical about the connection the animals have with the patients.”

This connection is what inspires over 15 volunteers to participate in the program each month.

Pet Therapy sessions are also fulfilling to the animals that seem to be destined for the type of work. Rick Hall’s Newfoundland, Molly, has been volunteering in the program for two years and anxiously anticipates their visits.

“On Thursday nights before our visits Molly gets a bath, and though she typically doesn’t like baths, she gets excited because she knows we’ll be visiting the hospital on Friday morning,” says Hall. “It is very rewarding and important for patients to have pet therapy. Molly is really doing something special to help the patients in their recovery.”

A Special Bond
It takes a special kind of pet and volunteer to work in the pet therapy program. Pets need to have a calm and loving demeanor-and be up for anything they may encounter during therapy. Before participating, pets have to undergo a stringent screening process with a local vet that includes various starling scenarios, such as pans dropping to the floor, IV poles rolling by and tail pulling. Volunteers have to commit to visiting at least monthly and must be attuned the therapists’ and patients’ needs throughout the visit.

“Pet therapy requires a close partnership between the animal, owner, therapist and patient at all times,” says Burba. “The volunteer that we continue to have are so dedicated. The dogs and their owners have a gift for this kind of work.”

And Raborn gets to see this gift come to life every week from the front desk at Siskin Hospital.

“The minute the dogs come through the door they know they are here for a special purpose,” says Raborn. “They sense that they are here for a special reason. it is incredible to see the reaction.”

To learn more about Siskin Hospital for physical Rehabilitation’s pet therapy program, visit www.siskinrehab.org or call 423.634.1674.

Photography by Katie Freeland and by Doug Barnette, courtesy of Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation

 

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Jennifer Watts Hoff is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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