Pet therapy: Program is part of effort to return humanism to medicine

Pam Mandody, RN is all smiles when she encounters Peter, a pet therapy dog, on the ninth floor at Erlanger Health System in downtown Chattanooga. Pet owner Brenda Bowker, left, holds the 12-year-old Yorkie/Chihuahua mix.

Somewhere in between inventing new machines, techniques and medicines to make us feel better, medical professionals forgot that not only are their patients human beings with human needs, so too are the doctors.

That is the basic contention of members of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, an international organization of individuals and medical school chapters formed in 2002. Its mission is "dedicated to foster, recognize and support the values of humanism and professionalism in medicine."

Gold Humanism Honor Society Pledge

As a member of the Gold Humanism Honor Society, I pledge to:1. Be a role model and mentor for humanism in medicine.2. Champion the proper balance between scientific and humanistic patient care.3. Inspire colleagues to promote humanism throughout the health-care system.4. Advocate humanistic patient care locally, regionally and nationally.5. Nurture fellowship in membership.6. Help those struggling to overcome the barriers to humanism in medicine.7. Be a force for improving healthcare for everyone.

photo Patient Ambassador Aisha Scott, leans down to pet Peter, a pet therapy dog, during a recent visit on the ninth floor at Erlanger Health System in downtown Chattanooga. Peter is a 12-year-old rescue dog owned by Brenda Bowker.
photo Peter, 12, a pet therapy dog, cruises the ninth floor at Erlanger Health System on a recent visit to patients and staff.
photo Javier Huerta enjoys the company of Peter, 12, a pet therapy dog, in his room on the ninth floor at Erlanger Health System in downtown Chattanooga. "Javier told me he misses his pomeranian from home," Blaine Kelley said, an Erlanger Health System public relations specialist.

One of the ways that health-care professionals have tried to reintroduce compassionate care into healing is through pet therapy. At Erlanger, where the local chapter of the GHHS is based, specially trained dogs make regular visits to not only lift the spirits of the patients but the caregivers as well.

"It is amazing that even [long] after the [dogs] visit, it can lesson their [patients'] depression and fatigue," says surgical nurse Amy Kelly.

"After a visit, patients are less tired and are smiling and optimistic, and they are telling their family about it."

"The professionals love it as well. You talk about decreasing stress and anxiety. Just touching their fur puts a smile on their faces for hours. It helps everybody. The entire staff, even outside vendors, and, of course, the pets are eating it up."

Kelly says she has been a pet therapy advocate for many years and used to take pets into nursing homes.

"It really helps children, but it is across the board. It helps everybody. It lowers your blood pressure and eases major mental health depression or feelings of isolation, and it encourages [patients] to communicate.

The pet therapy program is being featured this year as part of Solidarity Week for Compassionate Patient Care by the local GHHS chapter, the University of Tennessee Gold Humanism Honor Society, which was founded in 2009 by Dr. Mukta Panda. Each year, it joins other chapters of the GHHS in highlighting the need for such care among all medical professions.

"As medicine has gotten more complex and technical, it has moved away from the humanistic aspect and the heart," says Scott Ward, a fourth-year student in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine.

Members are peer-nominated at the end of their third year, and about 10 percent, or between 16 and 18, of UT med students from across the state are asked to join. Ward, along with Eddie Dunn were elected as liaisons to the UTGHHS.

"They exemplify this attitude of being patient-centered," Panda says. "They are much more in tuned with keeping the heart in medicine and having an attitude of being very empathetic and team-minded, which is the idea behind Solidarity Week."

Originally Solidarity Day, it was expanded to a week two years ago. This year's observance happens this week, today through Friday. It will conclude with a luncheon for the dogs, owners and handlers at the hospital.

The different chapters can choose how they want to celebrate the week. One year, the local chapter made a video thanking medical staff members who exemplified the group's mission, including doctors, nurses and custodial staff.

This year, the focus is the on the pet therapy program, something that is universal in chapters throughout the state, according to Dunn. Erlanger also offers art and music therapy programs as part of GHHS.

"Each hospital's multiple patients receive visits from these dogs, and it uplifts them during their stay. It's a crucial time for them. It's especially important for children, who have no idea what is going to happen to them. They need uplifting."

The animals used in the program are vetted through the Human Animal Bond in Tennessee program at the veterinary school at UT in Knoxville.

Samantha Printup handles the adult pet therapy program and coordinates regular visitations from 20 dogs. She has them visit well before lunch and dinner, "because dogs will be dogs and if they smell food, well, they get excited."

As part of the program, trading cards have been created featuring a photo of each dog and some biographical information.

"People love collecting them," Printup says. "It might say that this one loves long naps, and this one thinks he's a lap dog even though he weighs 80 pounds."

"We try to have them visit with as many people as we can."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.