New pet visitation program comforts adult patients

Pet visitation program now at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville

By Anne Roy - Talent coordinator

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A new pet visitation program is underway at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville.

In just a three-year period, Melissa Loeffelholz experienced several major surgeries and spent months in the hospital isolated from the outside world.

She was in a car accident in 2012 and needed jaw surgery. She was then diagnosed with a rare cerebrovascular disorder and had brain surgery in 2013. Lastly, in 2014, she had her appendix removed and two stomach surgeries.

Her life was severely disrupted. She found comfort in her recoveries at home from her two dogs and vowed she wanted to do pet therapy to give back. So when she turned 30 last year, her husband bought her another dog, Oscar, an English Goldendoodle, and she started him in training right away.

Oscar is now one of two dogs in the new pet visitation program at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville. Pets have long helped children as they recover in the hospital and now adult patients have the same opportunity.

Baptist Jacksonville recently started the Grace Andersen Pet Visitation Program, which provides comfort to patients during their hospital stay.

The program currently involves Oscar and Penny, a Boston Terrier. Two other teams are also in training with their owners. The pets go through six weeks of training on everything from obedience and temperament to helping the dogs tolerate sounds like hospital equipment and elevators.

The volunteer visitation program started through a generous gift to the Baptist Health Foundation from Grace Andersen, a longtime Baptist Health donor and animal lover. The donation pays for training, immunizations, supplies and other needs.

“We are so grateful to Mrs. Grace Andersen and her generosity which made this dream a reality,” said Michael Mayo, hospital president of Baptist Jacksonville. “Pet visits are a proven therapy to help patients cope and heal during a hospital stay. Anyone who is a pet owner knows of the close relationship and bond of their special four-legged friend. I am excited and pleased that we now can offer this service to all patients in the Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville facility.”

The goal of the program is to eventually have 16 pets.

“The Pet Visitation Program is an integral part of the way we create an atmosphere that promotes healing and wellness in our hospital,” added Tracy McDougal, director of volunteer services for Baptist Jacksonville. “Enhancing the patient/visitor experience is our priority, and pet visitation minimizes stress and anxiety related to hospitalization for our patients.”

For Loeffelholz, she’s able to relate to the patients she visits with Oscar.

“Oscar loves people,” said Loeffelholz, who is volunteering at Baptist Jacksonville. “It’s just very rewarding to give back. I have been in the hospital for weeks and months at a time with no access to outside life. The hours and days get so long in a hospital. Making people smile is the best thing you can do.”

The Baptist Jacksonville program is similar to the Pet Therapy program that Wolfson Children’s Hospital Auxiliary started in 1995. Baptist Medical Center Beaches also has a Pet Therapy program where a volunteer brings her poodles to cheer up patients at The Center for Joint Replacement and cardiac rehab sessions.

Baptist Health’s other hospitals are also seeing the benefit. Baptist Medical Center Nassau started a program in December with 7-year-old Labrador Retriever, Maggie, and Baptist Medical Center South is looking into starting a pet therapy program.

For more information about the program, call 904-202-2059.

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