Therapy Dog 'Spirit', Once Abused, Eases Pain for Sick, Dying

PHOTO: Spirit has been trained as a pet enrichment therapy dog, a role he takes seriously in the palliative care unit at Montifiore Medical Center in the Bronx in New York City as seen here in this undated handout photo.
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For the last week, Archibald Downer -- a 65-year-old on dialysis -- has been painfully poked and prodded with needles as doctors try to figure out why his fever and blood pressure won't go down.

He is bedridden among others who are sick and dying in the palliative care unit at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where the days and sometimes the pain seem endless.

But once a week, a warm and loving spirit sweeps through the stressful New York City hospital, and is greeted like a breath of fresh air -- Spirit, the therapy dog, that is.

With his sparkling blue eyes and friendly demeanor, the 6-year-old mutt is certified to work with patients, lifting spirits, lowering anxiety levels and easing pain -- both psychological and physical.

"He jumps on my bed and lays on my legs, getting comfortable," said Downer, a retired plumber. "It's a nice way to help those who are crying from pain. The dog makes a whole lot of difference. My arm was stinging [for repeated blood draws] but it don't bother me no more."

"Every day, I ask the doctor if I can leave," he said. "But the dog changed my mind."

Animals have provided emotional comfort to humans for thousands of years. According to the Society, animal-assisted therapy can help children who have suffered abuse or neglect and patients undergoing cancer treatments.

Pets have also forged strong bonds with veterans' families who are coping with the effects of wartime military service.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants reveals that patients report "feeling better" when they interact with an animal.

"It brings us closer not only to the patient, but to their family, as well," said Dr. Rose Guilbe, medical director of the palliative care unit and a family physician. "It creates a nicer working environment and takes away from the stiffness of medicine."

Spirit must follow strict hospital guidelines. His paws are disinfected before he enters the unit, he is on a leash and he wears a photo ID.

"Spirit needs his own insurance and has to be cleared by a veterinarian for infection control," adds Guilbe.

And he only visits those patients who have given their consent. Not all people love dogs, and the staff understands that.

"It brings out a part of the patient we don't usually see -- some joy in their personality that we don't get with opioids and other medical treatments," she said. "It also increases the communication among us in the medical community."

Spirit loves his work as much as patients do, according to his owner Linda Koebner, who found him at the pound while working in Shreveport, La.

"He looks a lot like a Siberian husky or Australian shepherd," she said. "I have been told he has a lot of [Louisiana] Catahoula in him."

Spirit had been badly abused as a pup, but remains "so gentle and sweet and just exudes affection," said Koebner, 61. "He's definitely not a testosterone-infused dog."

"Animals can have such an amazing impact on people," she said. "From what I've observed, it's the nonjudgmental piece of it. They touch something soft that is totally there for you in that moment and you don't have to do anything."

Koebner is getting her master's degree in health advocacy and has had a growing interest in end-of-life issues. She had Spirit certified in pet therapy and approached Montefiore a year ago.

A committee was formed to establish protocols for the health and safety of patients.

When he arrives in the palliative unit his water bowl is waiting.

"Everyone is happy to see him and he is so excited to go," said Koebner.

"It's a stressful environment and to have someone show up with love and kindness is great. Everyone wants their picture taken with him."

Therapy Dogs Awaken the Spirit

Spirit greets the patients in the hallways, those in wheelchairs and those who are confined to bed.

In one room an elderly woman lay unresponsive with her two children, both in their 50s, at her bedside.

"The minute Spirit brushed against her, she woke up and became aware and totally animated for 20 minutes and talked about the dogs she'd had," said Koebner. "It was a poignant conversation for the three of them together."

Guilbe, who is sometimes jaded by 20 years of conventional medicine, said she has seen the holistic healing power of Spirit's visits.

Just this week the dog jumped in bed with a woman who has chronic, incurable illness.

"She had been raised on a farm in Massachusetts and just the touch and feel of the animal brought back to her the wonderful years when she was a child and there were so many dogs running around," she said.

"It opens up another piece of my heart," said Guilbe of the interaction. "We are trained to be such stoic medical providers. I learned something about Ms. G that I would not have gotten had I just treated her symptoms. I really see her as so much more human ... It makes such a difference."

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