Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The Best Medicine…

Buckeye Paws Service Dogs. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Ohio Barker

It was a full-moon Friday and we were well on our way to a record trauma day.  Twelve hours into a 24-hour shift and we’d seen 13 so far…half of which were Level 1‘s…the most serious and the worst.  The doctors, nurses, and staff plugged away at triage, getting patients to the trauma floor, ICU or the OR.  Each case was treated with the same robotic precision.  It was tough work and it wore on you as the day shifted into night without signs of letting up.   As dawn broke over the city, you could see the relief in everyone’s eyes and hear it in their voices.  This went on day-after-day with weekends bringing the most anxiety with the car crashes, falls, stabbings, and gun-shot victims.

On many days, there just wasn’t the time or opportunity to decompress.  This occurred when it was all over maybe sitting in the car in the parking garage with my head on the steering wheel or perhaps sitting in a quiet corner in a remote area of the hospital.  Sometimes I would walk around the hospital block lost in my own thoughts.  The difficulty many healthcare workers encounter is leaving this all at work and not bringing this stress home.  On a few occasions, I remember driving home and just driving.  I missed the turn-off onto my street and realized I was miles past my neighborhood.  A mental-health break or reprieve was non-existent.

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

On Thursdays, the hospital had dog-therapy day and it was the most anticipated day of the week.  I would watch dogs of all shapes, sizes, breed and color go from room to room visiting with the patients.  Often times, I would find myself standing at the end of the hallway, sipping the cold dregs of cafeteria coffee and smiling at the wagging tails and panting tongues as the ‘fur-docs’ made their visits.  I suppose that was a little bit of a mental vacation but all too fleeting.

During my years in clinical practice, there were many times that pet therapy could have aided our staff.  I remember one occasion after a terrible motor-vehicle trauma in which the patient didn’t make it.  When the patient was removed from the trauma bay in order for family to see their loved one and grieve, there was a somber silence in the trauma bay.  As always, the bay was littered with trash, tubes, gloves, gowns, blood and fluids.  As we cleaned up, the air was thick with emotion:  sadness, anger, depression and futility.  I remember walking outside to get some fresh air and one of the ER nurses walked out with me.  It was the end of her shift but the only a break in mine.  We briefly hugged and I watched her slowly walk to the parking garage.  At the same time, one of the four-legged dog therapy volunteers was also walking out of the hospital with her owner.  The ER nurse and the dog passed each other on the sidewalk, she stopped, turned around, ran back to the dog and collapsed in a hug around that fur-angel and sobbed.  Thinking back on that afternoon, I realize how I wish we would have had more of those interactions.  Imagine how beneficial that mental-health therapy would have been for the hospital staff no matter their capacity.

Although it has taken some time, that program is now available.  It’s called the Buckeye Paws Program at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center and it is fantastic!


OhioBarker had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the founders of Buckeye Paws, Mary Justice, associate executive director of patient care services and Beth Steinberg, associate chief nursing officer as well as Aimee Mitchell, program coordinator and manager for Buckeye Paws.  Beth has a yellow lab named Brienne and Mary owns a cream golden retriever, Shiloh.

The Buckeye Paws program came to fruition in March 2020 when Ms. Justice and Ms. Steinberg met to discuss how their love of dogs and their experience in healthcare could be combined into a tool to assist healthcare workers.  Little did they know that the pandemic was right around corner and what an impact their dogs would have on the front-line personnel.  In fact, when the pandemic hit, the Buckeye Paws program was put on hiatus shortly after launching but after digging in research and with multiple discussions with the dean of OSU’s college of veterinary medicine, the program was given the ‘green light’ again.

It is well-documented that pet-therapy used in the patient setting can lower blood pressure, reduce physical pain, increase activity level, and regulate vital signs.  It has also been shown to stimulate the release of serotonin and oxytocin and other hormones that elevate the mood.  Perhaps the most important elements are that pet-therapy can calm anxiety, reduce loneliness and depression, and promote social interaction.  These are some of the elements of pet-therapy that Beth and Mary wanted to bring to the hospital staff.

OhioBarker asked Mary and Beth what it takes to be a human and dog volunteer at Buckeye Paws and the requirements are rigorous and purpose-driven.  For starters, the dogs must be certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs (ATD).  The certification process involves an observation section, health screen and check as well as a background check.  Perhaps one of the most important elements of the ATD standard is the annual re-certification in order to maintain proficiency.  Because of the important and dynamic relationship between dog and handler, the process as well as acceptance is as much about the dog as it is the handler.  Traits that a dog must possess include:  good temperament, confidence, and the ability to work well with other dogs.  They also cannot be shy, withdrawn or be prone to barking or snapping. They must be tolerant of noises (i.e. lights, sirens, bells, etc.) and chaos in the hospital.  Finally, they must be outgoing, kind and care about people.

On the handler side of the equation, Buckeye Paws prefers people that have or had hospital experience.  The human volunteers must be able to handle stressful situations and tension and to know when not to enter a particular situation for the safety of themselves, the dog, the staff, and the patient.  They need to be able to handle the sometimes tough and graphic environment of the acute care hospital setting as well as being sensitive to HIPAA privacy laws and regulations.
Regarding their outlook or future vision for the Buckeye Paws program, both Mary and Beth stressed the importance of funding for both dogs and handlers which would help offset the cost of support, supplies/gear and training.  Expansion is another important goal with sights set on expanding within OSU’s hospital system and then ultimately campus-wide for faculty, staff and students.  A wider scope of expansion is also envisioned and in the early stages of discussion to set-up similar programs at other hospital systems in the city, state and beyond.

There are currently four dogs in the program with one still in training to serve and provide support for the entire medical center.  If you would like to donate to the Buckeye Paws program to help them achieve their goals, all support is through the Stress, Trauma, and Resilience (STAR) program specifically for the staff at the OSU Wexner Medical Center.  Here is the link:

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer along with your fur-angel, there is an initial intake form on the Buckeye Paws website at:

Asked why they think that the Buckeyes Paws program is so successful, Ms. Justice said, ‘the dogs offer non-judgmental support to all.’

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