The waiting room of the oncology department at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital was busy last week, with chairs filled by patients and their family members.
However, if the mood was somber, one visit from Jessie, a German shepherd trained as part of the hospital's animal-assisted therapy program, broke any tension.
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His handler, Linda McCarthy of Island Lake, announced who they were once they entered the room and suddenly everyone from people in the waiting room to busy staff members, vied for their few minutes to visit with Jessie.
Patti Saylor of Round Lake Beach visited with the dog the longest. Suddenly, it appeared her cancer treatments were the furthest thing from her mind as she gazed at Jessie and recalled the dogs she had cherished.
For his part, Jessie seemed to thrive on the attention. He jumped up onto the chair next to Saylor -- he's trained to do that, to enable patients in hospital beds to pet him and make eye contact -- and sat patiently while she stroked his head and talked to him.
"When you see an animal, you forget about everything," Saylor said. "It's so nice, so homey."
That's just what hospital administrators had hoped for more than three years ago when they launched the program. Julie Zuidema, volunteer services coordinator, was fairly new to the Barrington hospital, but she had already started a pet therapy program for Hospice of Northeastern Illinois, and she knew its powerful benefits.
"Wherever the dogs go, they almost always connect with people who can use a moment's respite from their thoughts," Zuidema said.
Zuidema worked with a team of administrators to create Good Shepherd's program, taking into account dog training, infection control, risk management, finance, patient relations, employee health, clinical education, housekeeping -- and the hospital's mission and spiritual care component.
After a year of planning and looking at other hospital programs, they started theirs in 2009 with four dogs and handlers. They had a pair of long haired German shepherds, as well as a chocolate lab and a Shih Tzu, whimsically named Sir Woodrow.
Jim Buster of Fox River Grove was among the second group who joined the program, with his long haired German Shepherd named Sadie. He had been involved with Therapy Dog International and had taken his dog to local nursing homes, but visiting the hospital offered them other opportunities.
His favorite visits, he says, are calling on children in the hospital and watching their eyes light up when he and his dog walk in the room. But he gets nearly the same reward when visiting with adults.
"When we're walking through the surgery waiting room, just to have a loved one of a patient in surgery get down on their knees to hug the dog, with tears in their eyes, is so rewarding," says Buster , who is working to train a new dog, Clancy, into being a therapy pet.
Good Shepherd now has 12 dogs in the program, ranging from the German shepherds, to a Maltese, a black lab, golden retriever and a golden-doodle, along with such exotic varieties as a Spinone Italiano and a French Briard. Each has their own calling card with their backgrounds to share.
They typically make their rounds during the afternoons and evenings, the better to leave mornings free for doctor visits and other medical procedures.
One of McCarthy's usual stops is the infusion center, where patients receive everything from chemotherapy treatments to pain medication. But they're never too busy for a visit from the dogs.
Kim O'Connor of Barrington reflected on her own dogs while visiting with Jessie, wishing they were as well-behaved. Registered nurse Maureen Daker came over to get in her visit.
"It's not just for the patients," she said. "It's for the nurses too. We love seeing Jessie. He brightens up our day."