ROCKFORD, -- If you see a canine helper comforting a patient at Rockford Memorial Hospital, think of Mellany McDuffa.
McDuffa worked at the hospital for 25 years before she passed away in September. She was passionate about dogs, especially her Westie named Jack who visited her at the hospital during her treatment for ovarian cancer.
At the time, hospital officials behind the scenes had been preparing to start a pet therapy program. Millicent Christopher, McDuffa's sister and a fellow hospital employee, said contributing funds to the program was the perfect way to honor McDuffa's memory.
"This is the perfect place for her memorial because she worked here, and we want to do something for the patients and the families," Christopher said. "This involves dogs that she was passionate about, and it also benefits the place where she worked and got such fantastic care."
The hospital launched its Loving Tails pet therapy program this week, and funds raised by McDuffa's family, friends and co-workers will offset some of the costs of training the dogs. Christopher said the goal is for McDuffa's dog, Jack, to become a therapy dog.
Hospital officials are recruiting more dogs and handlers for the program. Dogs, as of now, will visit patients on Wednesdays and Thursdays on the medical/surgical and pediatric units.
Program coordinator Mary Ann Locsmondy said the program has been in the works for about a year.
"When you see those little eyes, and they wag those little tails, it's pure love," Locsmondy said. "People love dogs. They give comfort, joy and happiness."
Rockford's other two hospitals also have dog therapy programs.
The OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center Animal-Assisted Therapy Program launched in 2009. Today, the program has 43 handlers and 48 dogs.
Spokeswoman Therese Michels said the dogs did 32,052 visits last year. Dogs visit patients every day, and a temperament testing for new dogs and handlers interested in joining the program is scheduled for March 17.
The Caring Canines started making visits at SwedishAmerican Hospital on Sept. 15, 2010, coordinator Deb Schwarze said. The program celebrated its 20,000th visit this past December.
Schwarze said the program has 21 dogs that visit patients, guests and staff members Tuesdays through Saturdays. One dog even serves as a greeter Monday afternoons at the hospital's State Street entrance.