August 29, 2008

Cancer Center’s Visits to Animal Friends an Escape

By Brian C Rittmeyer

Mena Small pulled at her mother's clothes, dragging her through Animal Friends' Ohio Township facility.

With all the dogs, kittens and bunnies, Mena, 4, couldn't get enough.

The rambunctious little girl who likes to sing and dance is fighting cancer. This was her third time at the shelter, for a monthly pet therapy program conducted by Animal Friends and the Cancer Caring Center.

When she sees the animals, "her eyes light up," said her mother, Moneera Ogbomon, 43, of Penn Hills. "She has something to look forward to -- seeing the animals and spending time with the group, the exercises they do and the coloring."

Animal Friends and the Cancer Caring Center are in the second year of the program, supported with a grant from Highmark. The pet therapy program is intended to help children diagnosed with cancer, or whose parents or other family members are fighting the illness.

"It's away from their normal experience and environment filled with cancer. They are coming out to a pristine environment where everything is different," said Ann Cadman, a health and wellness coordinator with Animal Friends. "It's good for everybody. It's the entire family that benefits.

"It's like throwing a stone into a pond of water. It doesn't just help the kids. It will reverberate out into the family."

Despite having two gerbils and fish at home, Lisa Varvaro's four children usually beg and plead to take home a puppy or a kitten during a visit to Animal Friends. Varvaro, 44, of Shaler was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2007 and is undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

"They're smiling and excited the whole time," she said. "We've got a lot going on. If they can get their minds freed up, it's good news."

Sue Franke, a registered nurse and consultant to Animal Friends and the Cancer Caring Center, starts the program with a story and ends it with a friendship circle where those attending hold hands and say for what they are thankful.

"It brings tears to your eyes. A lot of these kids and families are going through a horrible ordeal," she said.

The children get to visit, play with and pet specially certified dogs and cats, like Haley the Comet, a 3 1/2-year-old American pit bull terrier.

"It gets their mind off of worrying about themselves or their parents. It is a pain reliever, and it works," Franke said. "The animals love everybody."

Haley and her owner, Ericka Rademacher of West View, enjoy the visits.

"She has fun. She wiggles and gets kisses and shakes hands, and the kids give her hugs," Rademacher said. "It's a good thing. It shows the families and kids, yeah, it's rough, but there's other people there to help."

For Ogbomon, her only child's cancer diagnosis has been a life- altering event: "Everything else I used to do, I don't do. My life revolves around her, her doctors' appointments, giving her medicine on time and lots of praying and pleading with God."

But as her daughter runs, smiles and laughs, Ogbomon is soothed.

"It takes your mind off things. You feel comfortable and always welcome," she said.

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