Healing Paws helps heal children

Program offers first pet hospital visitation in country

By Ashley Mitchem - Reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - From cancer to chronic pain, they've been shown to be beneficial without any real side effects. No, not pain pills, but dogs making a difference for hospital patients.

At Wolfson Children's Hospital, a pet therapy program was already in place, but officials on Friday announced an expansion of the program.

IMAGES: Pets welcome at children's hospital

It's called Healing Paws, and it will give children who are in the hospital for a long time or who have a life-threatening illness the chance to visit with their own dog one-on-one right at the hospital.

Pat Ennis and Freddy, her Corgi dog, volunteer their time visiting patients at Wolfson together several times a week.

They spend time talking and hanging out with patients like 7-year-old Reed Trott, who had his appendix removed and has been in the hospital since Sunday night.

"He kind of reminds me of like a dog -- my grandmas dog called Duffy," Trott said.

Vanessa Blond, 17, a cystic fibrosis patient at Wolfson, hadn't seen her dog Ginger for three weeks because she's been in the hospital. But on Friday she was reunited with her pet, all thanks to the new program.

"It's boring and it's lonely, and to be able to see your dog and for him to come and give you kisses and cuddle with you, I think it's great and comforting," Blond said.

Eighteen years ago, Ennis started the pet therapy program at Wolfson and has been putting smiles on the faces of thousands of sick children since then.

"There's evidence that having pets around sick individuals helps improve their overall well-being, helps shorten the length of time that they're in the hospital, and, generally speaking, improves their level of care," said Jerry Bridgham, chief medical officer at Wolfson.

The pet therapy program at the hospital is expanding. Friday morning, the "Healing Paws" program was introduced as the first pet visitation program at a children's hospital in the country. The hospital converted a hallway down into an area that's suitable for having pets brought from home.

"We were able to convert a hallway down by the exit to the hospital into an area that's suitable for having pets brought from home, having children go in there and spend time with the pets," Bridgham said.

A dog owner himself, Bridgham knows the love and support pets provide and believes this program will help improve the overall well-being and outlook for many patients.

"We want to make it as close to home as possible," he said. "Kids don't stop being kids when they're in the hospital."

Blond's grandmother, Debbie Fleenor, says she's happy Ginger can now spend time with Blond and keep her company.

"It just relaxes her, it relaxes Vanessa when she can sit and pet the dog," Fleenor said.

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