By Marci Narum  |  Photography: Photos by Jacy

201701-sanford-dogs-051If she were able, Lori Geist would have smiled when unexpected guests arrived at her hospital room doorway for a visit in January.

“Hi sweetheart. Look at you,” Lori says, petting Jillian, a 13-year old Sheltie. “You’re so beautiful.”

Lori is recovering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system, resulting in paralysis. Her doctors say she will be hospitalized at least four months, so a surprise visit from Jillian made Lori’s day. There was happiness in her eyes and her voice as she stroked Jillian’s long, smooth coat.

“I grew up on a farm and I was the one that would always bring stray dogs home. Even to this day my mother says, ‘Lori, don’t you bring another dog home.’”

Jillian is right at home at Sanford Health in Bismarck, where she and other certified therapy dogs visit twice a week.

“If it’s not naptime we can go up to the pediatric unit,” says Jillian’s owner, Joyce Masseth. She just crawls right up into bed with the kids.”

“Therapy dogs provide happiness and comfort to patients,” says Dr. Parag Kumar, pediatrician at Sanford Health. “It allows the patient to take their mind off of their illness and focus on something else. If a patient is feeling down and sad, the therapy dogs are a great way to spread joy and put a smile on the patient’s face.”

Gary Braun is one of several pet therapy volunteers at Sanford Health. He visits the hospital regularly with his dog, Sage, a nine-year old Portuguese pointer. It’s his second therapy dog; Bailey was his first.

Gary says being a pet therapy volunteer has its ups and downs. He says everyone needs a visitor, but making some of those visits is tough. He recalls seeing a woman who had just been told she had cancer and was being sent to Mayo Clinic.

“A nurse came to get me. She said the woman’s daughter asked for Bailey and me to come to the woman’s room,” Gary says.

Bailey crawled up onto the hospital bed and lay quietly next to the woman.

“She would pet Bailey on the head, and then wipe a tear with the bedsheet,” Gary remembers. “No one said anything. We sat there for a long time. Bailey was a hyper dog, normally. But she just stayed right beside the woman. I think Bailey knew she was needed.”

But the comfort the dogs bring when they go into a hospital isn’t just for patients.

“The nurse’s stations really look forward to the visits,” explains Jane Morrow, Sanford Health Director of Volunteer Services. “A lot of them have treats for the dogs.

“A couple of years ago when there was a huge computer changeover we had the dogs come in to de-stress those who were working around the clock to get that done. So it’s as much for the staff as it is for the patients,” Jane says.

And then there are the people in the hospital just watching the clock—waiting to hear news about their loved ones. Joyce and Myron Masseth visit the surgical waiting room each time they bring Jillian to the hospital.

“You know people are so tense anyway in the waiting room. We just go in and wander around and sit down,” Joyce says. “Some are sitting there all by themselves and you know how bad that must feel. Even if they don’t pet Jillian or say anything to her, they still have a smile on their face. That makes your day.”

Jillian has been a pet therapy dog for several years. She was named the Pet Therapy Dog of the Year in 2013, but retirement could be in her future.

“I’m not sure how much longer she can do this,” Joyce says.

In the meantime, others continue to become certified. Chelsea Schmaltz and her nine-year old chocolate Labrador, Remi, have been pet therapy volunteers a little more than a year.

“She passed her Canine Good Citizen test, and we also got certified with Love on a Leash, a National Therapy organization for pets. It’s a certification and insurance policy to say the dog is well-behaved and can go into the hospitals,” Chelsea explains.

Chelsea says she has been very proud of Remi as a therapy dog. She recalls, during one visit to the pediatrics unit, three boys were so happy to see Remi, they tackled her. Remi didn’t mind. She just loved them back.

Lori Geist couldn’t tackle Remi when Chelsea stopped by to visit her, but she did get to pet Remi and give her a treat. And she told Chelsea about her own pets waiting for her to come home.

“I have a potbellied pig, a cat, and a Jack Russell terrier,” Lori says.

Lori also shared a smile—by way of words.

“Thank you so much for coming. This was so nice.”

“Something always happens in those rooms,” says Jane. “You just know these dogs have made a difference.”   

To see more photos taken by Photos by Jacyof the pet therapy dogs at Sanford, click here.