Once a week, Wayne Cornelius and his Labrador Retriever, Nena, stroll through Scripps Green Hospital looking for people who could use a dose of comfort and company. From the corridors to the patient rooms, there is no shortage of candidates.
“Everyone lights-up when they see them,” said Kimberly Corona, manager of volunteer services at Scripps Green Hospital. “They make a positive difference in the lives of those they touch.”
Cornelius and Nena are members of the hospital’s pet therapy program. In complex care settings synonymous with invasive procedures and pain, they offer uncomplicated and unconditional feel-good moments — free of charge.
At the beginning of his 90-minute volunteer shift every week, Cornelius stops by the nurses’ stations to find out who is well enough for visitors. With a signature blue pet therapy vest hugging her chocolate-colored coat and an employee badge dangling from her collar, Nena makes the rounds with her owner, getting lots of strokes from the caregivers and support staff along the way.
Cornelius is armed with a pouch full of treats, but Nena mostly eats up the attention. After a few seconds of eye contact with a patient or staff member, the dog wags her tail so hard half her body moves.
“My dog is perfect for the job,” said Cornelius. “She enjoys it as much as the people do.”
During a therapy session, Nena provides wet kisses, entertaining antics and undivided attention. The recipients are as varied as the benefits. From the intensive care unit to the recovery rooms, the pair gives patients, their loved ones and staff members a temporary reprieve from the tense moments that can accompany a serious illness.
A woman in her 80s, enduring one of many recent hospitalizations, gently rubs Nena’s head as she recounts fond memories of dogs she’s had in the past. Down the hall, Cornelius gives his six-year-old lab a boost onto the bed of a woman who has had a paralyzing stroke. Unable to walk or talk, she breaks a smile.
There is no doubt, the pair has a gift. They both bring something unique to the bedside. Cornelius, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego and a leading authority on immigration policies, is fluent in Spanish. Often, he uses his language skills to connect with Hispanic patients who can’t communicate effectively with caregivers.
“They often feel very alone,” said Cornelius. “Nena’s language is universal. With my Spanish, I can bridge another gap.”
Months from retirement, he plans to continue donating his time and talent to the hospital’s pet therapy program.
“It’s fulfilling work,” he said. “It feels good to give back.”
Pet therapy volunteer Sharon Franks feels the same way. She and her Golden Retriever, Wally, work at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines — an outpatient clinic connected to Scripps Green Hospital.
“Patients are in need of healing here,” said Franks. “They might be at the clinic for a routine exam or they could be getting a cancer diagnosis. You never know. Either way, we can often reduce the anxiety and momentarily diffuse their worries.”
Numerous studies indicate the benefits of pet therapy. The anecdotal evidence is presented when Franks enters the Clinic with Wally in tow. Some patients and staff stop in their tracks when they see the pair. Many crouch down for a chance to stroke Wally’s well-groomed coat.
“He is like a bright yellow cloud,” said a patient. “Having him here is just wonderful.”
“People relate to his joy, like a baby laughing,” said Franks. “He’s an instrument of healing.”
Wally, like all of the dogs in the program, was specially trained for the pet therapy position. Nearing three, he is still a little too playful for the hospital. That job may be on the horizon in the future. Right now, Franks knows the time she and Wally donate at the clinic is worthwhile.
“Together, we can provide comfort to those in need or simply be a delightful distraction for a few minutes,” said Franks. “Mentally and physically, it’s good health. And it’s so rewarding.”
Currently, 14 canines and their caretakers participate in the pet therapy program, facilitating the healing process nearly five days a week. The volunteers and their animals are among 237 active volunteers at Scripps Clinic and Scripps Green Hospital.