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Member Story: Karen Blonder

posted Nov 14, 2014, 8:01 AM by Chrisie Mitchell   [ updated Nov 14, 2014, 8:04 AM ]

A “Tail” of a Therapy Dog
Author: John Desmond

 “So, why are you visiting Vassar Hospital, John,” Sylvia Murphy asked, holding a clipboard in one hand,  pausing a pen just above a sheet of paper in the other hand, and standing next to the visitors’ admissions desk in the lobby of Vassar Brothers Medical Center.

            “I am shadowing Karen Blonder and her therapy dog, Cassidy, as Karen walks Cassidy around the hospital to visit the patients,” I answered.  “I am writing an article about therapy dogs, their owner/handlers, and the patients’ reactions to the dogs.”

            Sylvia, who is Manager of Public Relations at Health Quest, was to escort Karen and me around the hospital and to make sure I—not Karen—did not violate the HIPPA Law.  The law protects every patient’s privacy, whether in a doctor’s office or in a hospital.

            Health Quest is a united health-care system that includes Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck, New York; Putnam Hospital Center in Carmel, New York; and Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie,

            “I have seen therapy dogs but have never made the rounds with one,” Sylvia remarked.

            Karen returned to the visitor’s admission desk from signing in Cassidy and herself. 

            “Here we go with our first patient,” Karen exclaimed.  This patient, a woman, was seated in a wheelchair.  As she leaned over and petted Cassidy, she asked, “Is the dog a he or a she?” 

            Karen answered, “A she.”    

“I own a Jack Russell,” the woman continued.  “He would not make a good dog to take into the hospital.  Any kind of dog delights me.”  She gave Cassidy a last pat, thanked Karen, and wheeled away.

Karen, Sylvia, and I walked past the guard, who checks validated passes and who waved at Karen, and walked into a hospital corridor.  “Let’s start at the Oncology Unit,” Karen suggested.

As we headed for the elevator to take us upstairs to the Oncology Unit, lab technicians in the hallway stopped to say hello to Karen and to pet Cassidy. 

Sylvia asked Karen, “How long and how often have you been taking Cassidy to the hospital.” 

“I have been doing this for four to five years, once a week.  Cassidy is eight and a half years old, and she was three to three and a half when I started bringing her here.”

Two hospital staffers stopped to pet Cassidy and said, “It feels good to see her.”

Karen said to them, “You smiled when you looked at her.”

They agreed they had.

“That means she did her job,” Karen replied.

We four entered the elevator and, along with other hospital personnel, lifted to the Oncology Unit.  To break the elevator silence, I asked Karen about Cassidy’s harness.

“It’s a strong one,” Karen answered.  “Cassidy is a strong dog.” 

In addition to her harness, Cassidy wore a vest over her back with the Good Dog Foundation logo printed on it and an official Vassar Brothers Medical Center volunteer badge pinned to it. 

Once on the Oncology Unit, our first stop was at the office of the nurse manager.  She was delighted to see Cassidy, gave Cassidy a treat, and held Cassidy’s head in her hands as they nuzzled each other. 

The nurse manager mentioned to me that, “Cassidy’s visits are as important for the staff as for the patients.  Some of the patients,” she added,” miss their pets more than they miss their families.”

We started to make the rounds of the unit.  Karen explained that a yellow sign on a patient’s door means that we cannot enter.  Sylvia agreed.  Karen said that she must knock on a patient’s door before entering and asking the patient if he or she would like a visit from Cassidy.

The first patient Cassidy visited on the Unit asked, “What kind of dog is this.”

 Karen said, “Cassidy is a Lab.”

As the patient leaned over the side of his bed, he said, “I have never owned a dog.”

 Karen asked, “Are you happy to see Cassidy.” 

He said, “Yes.”

At the patient’s request, Karen told Cassidy’s biography.  She had been thrown out of a car window on Route 9 across from the Galleria. People in another car saw her thrown out and said that, because Cassidy was chubby, she rolled to the side of the highway. These Good Samaritans called the Humane Law Officer at the Dutchess County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DCSPCA).  He came, picked her up, and brought her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) shelter in Hyde Park, New York.

Karen was helping in the clinic that night.  When the SPCA workers opened the box, Karen said, “An adorable lab puppy popped up. She was bruised and had some lacerations but was alive and had no broken bones.” 

Karen agreed to take her home and care for her but only for four days because Karen and her husband were planning an eight-week, 14,000 mile trip to Alaska and the Yukon and did not want a puppy, especially since they were taking their other two dogs with them.

However, during those four days, they fell in love with Cassidy and took her with them on vacation.  Thus, Cassidy spent her puppyhood on the road. 

Karen concluded, “Cassidy has been with me ever since.”  During Karen’s story, Cassidy sat and then lay down on the floor.

After we said goodbye to this patient, first Karen, then Sylvia washed their hands with liquid sanitizer.  I followed suit.

The next patient tentatively petted Cassidy and said that, “While I have no dogs of  my own, I like them.”

Cassidy smelled some hospital equipment.  Karen quipped that Cassidy was making sure it worked correctly.  Her joke drew a smile from the patient.

The following patient was dressed in street clothes and sitting on the side of her bed.  “I’m waiting to be discharged,” she said joyfully.  She then bent down and held Cassidy.  “You are so precious.  I love dogs,” she added.  “You have made my day!”

Karen had Cassidy perform a trick for the patient.  Karen told Cassidy to sit.  After a few moments, Karen told Cassidy to stand and to guess in which fist she held a treat.  Cassidy briefly sniffed then chose the correct hand.  Karen’s fist opened, and Cassidy gobbled up her reward.  Karen and Cassidy high fived each other.

Down the corridor from this last patient was a surgical lounge where families sat and waited.  Karen asked if they would like to see Cassidy.  They all petted and talked to Cassidy.  Their smiles suggested the tail-wagging visitor provided a pleasant distraction from their anxious watch.   

Outside the lounge, we passed a patient on a stretcher waiting for an elevator.  While he looked over the side of the raised portable bed, he expressed no interest either in Cassidy or in Karen’s invitation to pet the dog.

Sylvia asked Karen if Cassidy and she were insured.  Karen replied that, “they were both insured as a team, vetted, and Cassidy is retested and recertified every year for visiting Vassar Brothers Medical Center. Vassar accepts only dogs trained by the Good Dog Foundation.   Cassidy and I were trained at the Good Dog Foundation training site in Stanfordville, Dutchess County, New York.”

Our next stop was the nurse’s station for the unit, where nurses and doctors congregate to work and have lunch.  Cassidy—as well as Karen—are well known and were greeted by the staff with pleasure.  Doctors looked up from their computers and nurses looked up from their charts to say hello and pet Cassidy.

Cassidy joined the group for a water stop.  Karen brought a portable, plastic, collapsible, bowl, filled it with tap water from the break-room faucet, and held the bowl close to the floor for Cassidy to drink. 

Finished, Cassidy wandered the break-room floor hunting for crumbs for this morning’s breakfasts and lunches.  One nurse said, “Cassidy gives us a smile.  And she ‘cleans’ the floor of our crumbs.”  Another nurse washed and dried the water bowl.

On our way again, Karen observed that, “Cassidy relieves stress for the nurses and visitors as well as for the patients.  The nurses say they feel better when they see Cassidy.”

As we walked through the Intensive Care Unit, Karen pointed out that, “patients on ventilators are not necessarily responsive to nurses let alone to therapy dogs.”

Nevertheless, we visited two patients on this unit.  One was out of bed, sitting at a table, and eating his lunch.  He said to Karen,” I give you a lot of credit for showing dogs.  I had several dogs.  The last one, a cocker spaniel, was killed by a car as it crossed the street to visit a neighbor’s dog.  I won’t own another dog until I live in an isolated area.”

The final patient of the day was sitting up in bed and pounded his fists on the blanket to attract Cassidy’s attention.  When that gesture did not work, he called to Cassidy and finally got her attention.  He said he was awaiting surgery for a triple by-pass heart operation and was glad to have Cassidy to divert his attention and take his mind off the upcoming surgical procedure

Karen, Sylvia, and I left the unit and rode an elevator down to the lobby.  Over cafeteria coffee, Karen mentioned that she responds to all the patients on two levels: as a dog therapist and as a nurse.

“As a dog therapist, I try to brighten the patient’s day by showing them Cassidy, having her do tricks, and talking a bit about how they are feeling in general being in the hospital and in specific in seeing Cassidy.

“As a nurse, I silently evaluate the patient’s physical and psychological conditions.  I can’t help but do that, too, since I have been a nurse for several decades.”

“For example,” Karen said, “on a previous visit to the hospital, I met a patient who told me that, ‘I am going to be dying soon, and I’ve been praying about what I can leave my three grandchildren.  Then you walked in the room, and my prayers were answered.  I’ll get them a dog.’  Then there were tears in her eyes, and she hugged and kissed Cassidy.  ‘Thank you,’ she said. 

“I said to the patient, ‘I will get you a name at the SPCA who will call you and advise you on picking out a dog to leave to your grandchildren.  It is a wonderful idea for a gift.’”