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Patients respond to animal-assisted therapy

April 06, 2015 posted by Amy Holcombe

GREENVILLE- Hospital volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, but rarely do we expect a member of the team to have four legs and a tail. Vidant Medical Center has offered animal-assisted therapy for many years as a treatment intervention for patients with varying diagnoses. 

Murphy, a black lab mix, is by far one of the most popular volunteers with patients and is part of a pet partner team that participates in animal-assisted therapy sessions. 

For patients with mental illnesses, an interaction with an animal can be the one thing that makes them feel accepted, motivates them to get out of bed, or allows them to feel comfortable enough to begin dealing with their problems. 

Susan Willson volunteers each week in behavioral health with Murphy and has seen first-hand the positive benefits and therapeutic impacts of the sessions for patients. “Murphy serves as a great example of living in the moment and enjoying one's experience,” said Willson. “One thing Murphy offers that many patients do not have in their lives is unconditional love,” she added. 

She explained that Murphy doesn't see their diagnosis or problems. “He sees them for who they are and offers himself to them. He gives them love and affection without judgment or needing reciprocation.” Murphy is exceptional in that he instinctively knows who is more reserved and who needs special attention. He often gently approaches them and rests his head in their lap. 

The therapeutic benefits of patients interacting with animals such as Murphy are endless. Prior to engaging in an animal-assisted therapy session, a patient once shared that she had been having thoughts of not wanting to live. After seeing Murphy, the patient smiled and said that her interactions with the dog and involvement in the session was the one good thing that happened in her day. 

Other patients said therapy with Murphy has reduced their stress and anxiety levels. It has also helped with their depression and given them a more relaxed and calm demeanor. They have discussed having a better outlook on their own lives because of having the opportunity to focus on something positive and uplifting. For these patients, the animals give them the sense that life can be good and worth living. 

Prior to coming into the hospital, all animals and handlers are certified through the Pet Partners non-profit organization. Pet Partners then completes specific requirements through the volunteer services department at the hospital. 

The animal-assisted therapy sessions are led by licensed recreational therapists and assistants. The therapists and assistants creatively utilize animals, such as Murphy, as a tool to get patients talking and addressing difficult issues such as grief/loss, ways to stay well, ways to cope more effectively with issues, and many more topics. 

For more information on animal-assisted therapy or recreational therapy, please contact Timothy Livengood at 252-847-8464.
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