June 24, 2008

Therapy Dog Goes Through Cancer Treatment, Too

Tybee, a 10-year-old rough-coat Jack Russell terrier, has lymphoma, a cancer that affects the immune system.

"(Having cancer) really hasn't affected him except the big treatments, which make him nauseous," said his owner, Kathy Maschka.Tybee's normally long hair fell out when he began treatment six months ago, giving him a freshly trimmed look.Friday he went for his last round of chemotherapy in Charleston. After his treatment, he nibbled on his favorite meal -- chicken and Special K cereal.

And he missed only one day of work in those six months. Ironically, Tybee is one of five dogs registered by Therapy Dogs International Inc. that volunteer at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, visiting patients.

Tybee has been visiting patients at Beaufort Memorial for at least five years, giving him seniority in the therapy dog pack.

The hospital hopes that having dogs visit will improve patients' experience, as well as lower their blood pressure, stress, anxiety and emotional pain. Many studies assert that being around companion animals has that effect on people.

Maschka said Tybee looks forward to his job, even if it means he has to take a bath, something he despises.

When Tybee enters a patient's room, he picks up on the patient's mood. If the patient is subdued, he remains calm and sits in the patient's lap, content to be petted. If the patient is happier, he has more energy and wiggles around, Maschka said.

Sometimes Tybee's role is a little more complex.

On one occasion, hospital staff members told a patient they had a surprise for her, but she had to get off her ventilator first. The incentive worked. A visit from Tybee was the surprise.

Another time, a woman told Maschka that Tybee's visit to her mother when she was in the hospital lifted her mother's spirits and she spoke of the visit until she died a few days later.

To become a therapy dog, Tybee went through a rigorous behavioral test and evaluation that includes walking past an open cheeseburger on the floor.

The five therapy dogs visit people in the mental health, rehabilitation, mammography and administration departments, said Jamie McMahon, the hospital's volunteer coordinator.

JoAnn Graham, the owner of Bonnie, a white golden retriever therapy dog, shadowed Maschka and Tybee before she and Bonnie started their rounds.

Graham said there is an automatic connection between humans and animals.

Having a dog visit while a patient is in the hospital can bring back fond memories of a childhood pet and that makes it easier to be in the hospital, Maschka said.

"It's so good to bring a smile to people's faces," she said.