Pets Paired with Patients During End of Life Care

Both St. Luke's and Essentia Health Have Adopted Animal Hospice Care Practices

DULUTH, Minn. – Providing end of life care can be one of the most difficult, yet rewarding jobs in the medical industry.

Now with the help of four-legged friends, local hospitals and hospice care facilities are looking to ease the heartbreak another way.

“Dogs give hope, and joy to families and patients that need it in this setting,” said Kelly Zapp, Volunteer Coordinator, St. Luke’s Hospice.

Pets and people; it’s a connection dating back thousands of years.

“It really solidifies the fact that we as humans do have bonds with animals,” said Jack Lee, a volunteer at Essentia Health Hospice.

From the beginning of life until the end, studies show furry friends prove to be essential in everyday life.

“We had 15 dogs, we lost a few but now we have about nine coming through the program, “ said Zapp.

Local hospitals and hospice care facilities in the Northland are now pairing patients with pets.

“Our therapy program is specific to St. Luke’s,” said Zapp.

Staff at St. Luke’s Hospice is happy to have four-legged friends like Kato.

“I got to experience this situation where we went into this patient’s room, he was just diagnosed with stage four cancer and his daughter asked if we could come in and he instantly sat up on his bed, pulled his legs over, started petting the dogs and started talking about his farm,” said Zapp.

Zapp works hand and hand with animal volunteers like Kato and his human dad Jeff. Their time is donated, and Kato’s license to be a therapy dog is earned.

“To be able to have a pet therapy dog at Solvay is critical to the overall environment and care provided here,” said Traci Marciniak, President of the Miller Dwan Foundation. “The foundation feels really strongly about the importance of animal-assisted therapy.”

The Foundation built the Solvay Hospice House nearly ten years ago, providing the highest quality end of life care in the Northeast region of Minnesota.

“When Nova enters the room, family members will light up, patients will light up,” said Marciniak.

“We can just hug,” said Lee.

Volunteer Jack Lee isn’t lying when he says his almost two-year-old Newfoundland can help heal.

“She doesn’t have to say a thing,” said Lee.

To date, Nova has clocked over 150 visits and more than 700 hours of service as a therapy dog.

“That 20-minute session makes every second of those two hours’ worth it,” said Lee.

Nova isn’t a medical expert, but she knows how to love. Lee says he typically finds someone who is hopeless, depressed, sad, anxious, and Nova helps turn their mood around.

“Pets are something that people have in their own lives, it’s something that people find so very important and meaningful, we need to do that here,” said Marciniak.

The service of pet therapy proving to be extremely beneficial for many dealing with their final days of life.

“They make us happy, they make us smile,” said Lee.

St. Luke’s Hospice will be hosting a class to train upcoming therapy dogs on Friday, June 1.

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