A Little Extra Love
As she trots through the hallways of Texas Children’s Hospital, patients, nurses, doctors and other staff stop to greet her. Wearing her green vest and official hospital badge, Elsa makes her rounds to comfort those who need her most.
A professionally-trained therapy dog, Elsa is a 19-month old golden retriever and full-time employee at Texas Children’s. She works an eight-hour day, complete with breaks for lunch, bathroom and play time. Weekday mornings at 8:30 a.m., she and Sarah Herbek—her handler and a child life specialist—review patient consults to decide which patients they should visit. Their goal is to see eight children a day and spend quality time with each one.
“Each morning we go through the requests we get from nurses, clinicians and doctors to visit patients,” Herbek said. “We determine who to see and when we need to see them. Right now, our highest priority patients are in rehab. They have been in the hospital for a long time; they have been through a lot.”
Elsa and Sarah have been spending time with Brody, an 8-year-old boy from Splendora, Texas.
“We have been in the hospital for about nine days now,” said Elizabeth Zacharias, Brody’s mother, on a recent afternoon. “Originally, we thought Brody just had an earache, but it spread and we traveled here from Splendora because he needed to have surgery.”
When Elsa walked into Brody’s room, he jumped out of bed to give her a big hug, pulling his set of IV’s behind him. Although they had only met a few times before, Elsa tenderly greeted Brody as he hugged her. Once Brody got back into his bed, Elsa jumped up beside him and put her paw on his lap.
“I really like when she comes to visit me because she is a really good dog and she makes me feel better,” Brody said.
Before coming to Houston, Elsa trained with Canine Assistants, an Atlanta non-profit that has matched more than 1,500 service dogs with individuals and hospitals. The dog program at Texas Children’s, made possible by a donor family and still in its infancy, uses animal-assisted therapy to provide support to patients who may be having trouble coping with hospital stays, a new diagnosis or other traumatic experiences.
Elsa visits patients on designated inpatient units, including inpatient rehab, and was recently granted access to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). The demand for her to drop in on patients has been much higher than anticipated, but because of infection risks, not all patients are allowed visits.
“We get a lot of requests from patients on the pulmonary floor and the hematology/oncology floor, and it is really hard to tell them no,” Herbek said. “My hope is that one day we are able to visit them. We are very careful about keeping Elsa clean. She is groomed weekly and I wipe her paws off after I take her outside. We also ask that our patients put a sheet down on their beds when she comes to visit and sanitize their hands before and after they play with her to reduce their risk of infection.”
In the short amount of time Elsa has been working at Texas Children’s, she has made a huge impact. She helps calm patients down while they’re getting blood work. She coaxes them out of bed to take her for a walk. She comforts them when they need a little extra love.
“As a child life specialist, it is my job to work with patients who are some- times having a very hard time coping,” Herbek said. “When I have Elsa with me, it is easier to break the ice and build rapport with patients. It is easier to just make them smile. I don’t have to work as hard to do all of that because I have this awesome dog who comes in the room with me and we have this instant connection with the patient.”
Brody was in low spirits when he first met Elsa and Herbek. He had just been diagnosed with mastoiditis, an inflammation of the mucosal lining of the mastoid bone and mastoid air cell system. It is usually the result of an infection that extends to the air cells of the skull behind the ear.
“We met Brody when he was in the PICU,” Herbek said. “He didn’t want to get up and he felt terrible. When he saw Elsa, he picked his head up and smiled for the first time since his surgery.”