Northside Hospital has appointed its first canine chaplain team – Dave Frew and his 14-year-old black-and-white English Setter, Ranger.
The idea started with Frew, who with Ranger has been visiting patients through Happy Tails for several years. Because the Happy Trails teams are allotted an hour to see all the patients who want visits on a given day, most visits are only 10 minutes or even less on a busy day. Frew felt that some patients needed more time than those short Happy Tails visits allowed.
“In our short visits, I could tell some patients wanted more,” he said. “Many of them take comfort in talking about their own dogs, either at home or in their childhood. Ranger opens the door.”
Frew had already been spending longer times with patients at Hospice Atlanta, where he and Ranger have been volunteering on their own for several years.
“I was used to being around sadness and anxiety,” he said.
Though Northside was having success with pet therapy teams from Happy Tails, the hospital had never tried longer, more in-depth patient-pet encounters.
“When Dave approached me with the idea,” said Carol Kratochvil, Northside manager of volunteer services, “I knew we’d have to go through some legal hurdles, but that it was a good idea.”
In fact, it took three months to establish the rules, procedures and paperwork for the program. For example, a patient or a family member must request a visit in writing on the day of the visit. Ranger must be fully bathed just before arriving at the hospital. Anyone on the chaplain team must use hand sanitizer before entering the room. And if a patient wants him on the bed, the hospital must first cover the patient and the bed with a sterile sheet, which leaves the patient’s room when Ranger leaves.
And these are just a few of the many procedures covering every part of Dave’s and Ranger’s visit to a patient, with the patient’s safety and privacy always the top concern.
“We worked hard to establish a whole new set of procedures for this service,” said Kratochvil. “I think [the program] has been very successful so far.”
One recent visit to Northside with Dave and Ranger showed just how successful his idea has become. All of his visits for the day were scheduled ahead of time, and a human chaplain accompanied them on their rounds. Several visits were to hospital offices, including the Northside Federal Credit Union, where staffers had requested a visit.
In each office, Ranger was like a magnet, drawing compliments, cheerful greetings, pats and even hugs – to which he consistently responded with a simple tail wag.
“We love dogs,” said Mary Jane King. “The Credit Union is so slammed all the time we get stressed and need the downtime of a visit with Ranger.”
But, of course, the real value of what Dave and Ranger do is for the patients.
“Patients get depressed,” said Dave. “When human touch doesn’t work, they respond to a therapy dog. The first thing they do is whip out their cellphone and show me pictures of their dogs.”
But Dave and Ranger are more than just a therapy team.
“They are spiritual responders,” said Amani Legagneur, M. Div., manager of spiritual health and education at Northside.
“Everyone has a need for spirituality,” said Legagneur. “But because spirituality is often confused with religion, language gets in the way. With Ranger, people don’t need words to know they are loved.”
The Crier has followed Dave and Ranger’s pet therapy “career” since 2009, when Dave lost his wife, Stephanie, to a ten-year battle to cancer. She was Ranger’s first trainer and therapy partner. Dave promised to continue their work. Seven years later, they are still at it.
Dave also volunteers as a greeter and a patient shuttle cart driver transporting patients from their cars throughout the Northside campus to the hospital. He feels a connection to the hospital because Stephanie received much of her life-giving treatment there.
Since 14 is getting on in years for a dog of Ranger’s size, people often ask Dave if Ranger is slowing down. Though they both enjoy a day off, they work several days a week comforting patients and medical staff.
“We’re grateful to have Ranger as part of our department,” said Legagneur. He doesn’t need words to communicate compassion and human kindness. Those emotions are the core of spirituality. That is Ranger’s legacy.”