Special Volunteer Brings Joy and Cheer to St. Luke’s

The elevator doors opened, and Mabel stepped off and sauntered down the corridor of Bourne 2, a patient unit, as though she knew the place. Maybe she did. This was her fourth trip in as many months, and she wasn’t shy about being back. She ambled gracefully along with three of us in tow.

Jason Burgeron, RN, took one look at Mabel from six or seven yards away, just a few feet from the nurses’ station, and yelled, his hands in the air, “This is why I went to nursing school. We’re waiting for you.” His last comment was directed at Mabel as he smiled.

“We missed you. Where have you been?” asked Health Unit Coordinator and nursing student Jennifer DeFreitas. Mabel stopped for a few moments when she reached her two fans. Then turned right at the nurses’ station, and soon staff were coming from every which way, thrilled to see her.

Mabel isn’t a patient, and she isn’t your usual hospital visitor. She’s a four-and-a-half-year-old white and black border collie mix. Her fur coat is so soft and plush that you can’t help but want to pet her. Mabel is a rescue, originally from Bells County, Texas. She was brought to Massachusetts through Ruff Tales Rescue.

Non-profit volunteer organization that provides trained, affectionate canines

She was visiting St. Luke’s with Laura Johnson, a volunteer with Dog B.O.N.E.S.. They are a non-profit volunteer organization that provides trained, affectionate canines for visits to hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, schools, shelters, libraries and elsewhere. The acronym stands for Dogs Building Opportunities for Nurturing and Emotional Support.

Though Mabel is new to St. Luke’s, pet therapy dogs aren’t new to Southcoast. Cindy Turgeon, Manager of Volunteer Services at Charlton Memorial, said the pet therapy program began several years ago at Charlton Memorial Emergency Department at the request of Dr. Brian Tsang.

Bring a little fun into someone’s day as they recuperate, rehabilitate or simply live life

It began to lighten the atmosphere of a busy ED. Then the program began having dogs visit inpatients. As the Dog B.O.N.E.S. website states: “Our mission is to bring a little fun into someone’s day as they recuperate, rehabilitate or simply live life.” Charlton has had three visiting therapy dogs, said Cindy. The last one before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the program was Rosie. The program at Charlton is due to start up again in August. 

Donna Galotti-Kincman, Manager of Volunteer Services at Tobey, said they plan to introduce pet therapy at Tobey once the Emergency Room renovations are completed. She and Cindy co-manage the Volunteer Services at St. Luke’s and are ecstatic that the program could begin at the hospital last April. Cindy and Donna are currently interviewing more dogs and look forward to expanding Southcoast’s volunteer “family.”

Mabel didn’t enter her career solo. She was trained and certified in partnership with Laura. They attended classes together and passed an evaluation, and they became a therapy team.

Therapy dogs must already have obedience skills before their training. They must be able to sit, down, stay and heel on command. Dogs that jump up, nip or mouth are not right for therapy dog work. As part of their training, they are exposed to medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, compressors, etc. And they refine and practice their obedience skills for use in medical and other settings.

Cindy said, “It’s rewarding to see the joy in staff and patients when they interact with a therapy dog.” That joy was clear when a member of the St. Luke’s housekeeping staff bent down, took her gloves off and talked softly to Mabel.

“It makes me happy to see people excited to meet Mabel!” added Laura.

The dogs enjoy the attention as well. “She always looks like she’s happy to see us,” said Brooke Chandler, a nurse on the unit.

Jennifer DeFreitas added, “We should have dogs here every day.”