Pictured from left: Memphis, Nellie, and Blue
At BHCHP’s flagship location in Boston’s South End, Thursday mornings are wonderful!
At promptly 11:25, several furry friends arrive at 780 Albany Street, wearing their red uniform vest ready for work. Nellie, Memphis, Blue and other well-trained canines, and their handlers spend an hour each week visiting our medical respite patients at the Barbara McInnis House (BMH). Known as the BMC Healing Pups, they fill our Atrium space with a buoyancy and cheerfulness that encourages chatting among patients and staff eager to give the dogs plenty of belly rubs, compliments, and treats, and in return they bring a critical element of enriching play and comfort that aids in creating the healing environment at BHCHP.
It all began about eight years ago when Heidi Groff, a nurse practitioner working at BMH, met Sheryl Katzanek and her black Lab Riley wearing his Boston Medical Center (BMC) ID. Sheryl, the Director of Patient Advocacy and Domestic Violence program at BMC, just across Albany Street, introduced Heidi to the BMC Healing Pups program. Since then, except for a COVID pause, Healing Pups have been regularly visiting BMH and we’re incredibly grateful for the time and service they volunteer with us.
Sheryl notes “I know that many people experiencing homelessness have had to give up their pet animals, so just to be able to give them a little bit of puppy love is a gift. Dogs are an entry into people’s life stories. Dogs don’t judge and I think they help to humanize us.” The patients enjoy getting their photos taken with the friendly pups, and often share with each other the photos and stories of their own pets. This camaraderie can lead to conversations and stories about their lives. Creating a safe space where our patients can reminisce and remember their good times amidst the present challenges of homelessness is part of the healing process. According to Sheryl, “Both institutions [BMC and BHCHP] take care of folks to whom life hasn’t been kind and the dogs show kindness and people return that. The dogs heal us on a different level, in a way that medicine doesn’t or can’t. It’s hard to define and I’m forever humbled by the work these dogs do.”
For the staff, interacting with the dogs is a major stress reliever from the intense healthcare work environment. Dan Maloney, our Manager of Service Programs, who organizes the dogs’ weekly visits, says that the hour he spends with the pups every week is one of the most gratifying parts of his job. “Almost every week, a patient or a staff person will take me aside after the dogs visit and tell me, “You have no idea how much I needed that!”
Presently, the BMC Healing Pups includes 17 dogs and 15 employee handlers. Most of the dogs in the program are pets of BMC employees who have undergone the certification process for Therapy Dogs International Test and are vetted by BMC. Only three dogs, Louie, Riley, and Maestro, have completed more rigorous training through the NEADS organization as licensed service animals. Sheryl remarks that “almost all the handlers will tell you how excited the dogs get when they see that they’re wearing their vest on that day. They love going to BHCHP because they know that they’re going to be showered with love.” Even on days when they aren’t due for a planned visit, some of the dogs will try to enter the BHCHP building as they walk down Albany Street with their handlers.
We, at BHCHP, feel incredibly blessed to have the BMC Healing Pups as part of our broader family. As Heidi Groff notes, this generous service “enriches our relationship with BMC” and for that, we’re truly grateful. Over the years, the dogs have become such a central symbol of healing, both at BMC and BHCHP, that it’s hard to imagine a Thursday without them. Adds Sheryl, “They [the dogs] are just there to love and be loved. There’s no alternative motive. They are just a pleasant little diversion from hospital and respite life.”
With the everyday stress of daily life, wouldn’t we all benefit from a pleasant diversion that can help recenter ourselves with love, joy, kindness, and compassion?