May 5, 2011 -- Medical tests can be daunting, especially when they require 45 minutes of complete stillness deep in an outsized, noisy magnet. For 16-year-old Allison Ruchman of Rumson, N.J., a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to investigate recurrent headaches provoked a level of fear and anxiety that left her desperately searching her mind for a distraction. That's when Wally, her 5-year-old beagle, saved the day.
"I guess Wally was the first thing that popped into my mind," said Allison, a junior at Rumson-Fair Haven High School. "I started thinking about petting him, walking him, and then I wasn't fidgeting as much. It just really helped me."
An MRI can provide detailed images of organs buried under flesh and bones as long as the subject stays still, according to Dr. Richard Ruchman, Allison's dad and a radiologist at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J.
"MRI is really crucial now for the diagnosis of diseases, especially ones involving the brain and the spine. The problem is, it's very motion sensitive," Ruchman said. "When people are anxious, it's a lot harder for them to stay still. When people calm down, we're able to get a much better test."
Based on her own experience, Allison wondered whether other people waiting to have an MRI might also benefit from Wally's calming companionship. So the Ruchmans put their heads together to design an experiment that would suss out whether 15 minutes with the cuddly beagle, already certified as a therapy dog, could reduce MRI-related anxiety.
"We did some research to find out if anyone had done it before and they hadn't, so we figured why not do it because Wally seemed like the perfect dog for this experiment," said Allison, whose headaches have since stopped.
Based on self-reports from 34 patients who received an MRI, those who spent 15 minutes with Wally before the scan were significantly less anxious during the test than those who spent 15 minutes in a quiet waiting room. Wally's stress-reducing influence led the Ruchmans and colleagues to conclude that pet therapy could help patients stay still for longer, which, in turn, could boost MRI image quality.
"I think it's playing with a dog and having him near you, running your hand through his fur takes the stress away," Allison said.
The benefits of pet therapy have previously been reported across several fields of medicine, from pediatrics to end-of-life care. But the Ruchmans hope their study, which they will present at the American Roentgen Ray Society annual meeting this week in Chicago, will broaden the use of pets in medicine. Next, they hope to study more patients and other tests in the radiology department.
Wally also helps kids relax while learning to read at the local public library, said Allison, adding that she is considering a career as a veterinarian because of her love of animals. She might also follow in her dad's footsteps and become a doctor and a scientist, she said.
But whatever she goes on to do, one thing is certain: Allison and her stress-busting dog, Wally, will brighten the lives of many people along the way.
"I think it's brought us even closer," Allison said. "Now I even let him sleep him in my bed."