Animals Breed Happiness at Air Force Hospital
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Nov. 24, 1998 The staff at Wilford Hall Medical Center knew the cute but withdrawn 4-year-old girl had been sexually abused, but law enforcement authorities needed her to tell someone.
"I think she was too embarrassed to talk about it, so she kept quiet," Air Force Maj. Margaret Kohut said. "Then, I brought Max in. He crawled up on her lap, and she told him."
Remarkable things happen sometimes when Max, a silky-coated brown dachshund, and other dogs and cats come prowling the halls and wards of this massive Air Force hospital at Lackland Air Force Base. Like the time a comatose man responded to the cold nose and warm fur of a visiting pet.
But mostly the animals bring smiles to the faces of bedridden patients, especially little boys and girls who have been isolated here by their rebellious and broken bodies. Like 3-year-old Alizabeth Watson, in for one of several operations she needs for a kidney problem. A visit Nov. 19 by Max, Roscoe and a playful pug, Sammy, made her forget for a while the tubes taped to her arm.
"Animals don't care what you look like, what your state of mind is or if you're disfigured," said Kohut, a clinical social worker who steers the pet therapy program here on a volunteer basis. "They give love unconditionally." Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Kohut and others take their pets to Wilford Hall, and for a few hours lighten the loads of patients and staff alike.
"We'll be here Thanksgiving Day to visit all the patients, from children to geriatrics," Kohut said. "At Christmas, we'll not only visit the hospital but also the basic trainees not able to go home for the holidays, the people staying at the Fisher House [a temporary home for families of patients], even the correctional custody inmates." And on normal visiting days when she's completed her ward rounds, Kohut takes Max to the pharmacy, where people stoop to pet and talk with the good-natured dachshund, forgetting for a while how long they may have been waiting in line.
"Bringing the pets here reduces patients' stress, lowers their blood pressure," Kohut said. "For awhile, they can forget about their problems and pressures."
The Animal Assisted Therapy Program has been on the books here since 1994, but nobody brought pets in until Kohut revitalized the program this summer. Since July, six dogs, one cat and a rabbit have been coming weekly to cheer patients. Next month, Kohut's husband will bring his cockatoo in. Nobody yet has volunteered a pet snake.
Before getting their "dog tags," the pets must be certified by a veterinarian as free of diseases and parasites. The animals must be well groomed, good-natured and undisturbed by elevators, crowded halls and the typical clutter of a hospital bed. Max, Sammy and Roscoe fit the bill perfectly, seeking and submitting patiently to rubs, scratches, pats and strokes from hands big and small.
A couple times a month, volunteers meet for pet therapy training and obedience classes. They learn that the animals must remain close to people most of the time to stay well socialized. And they learn not to force their visits upon anyone, although few can resist the wagging tails and alert, upturned faces of the friendly pets.
Kohut said she's aware of a similar program at the hospital at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where someone's actually assigned full-time to head pet therapy. And Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii, reported a similar program last year. She doesn't know if other military hospitals use pets but said the practice is widespread in the civilian community.
She thinks all hospitals should try the program. "Therapy animals provide an emotional connection without judgment, criticism, fear or distaste for the medical condition of the patient," she said. The patients' smiles attest to the program's worth.