BY SARA KREVOY
The healthcare industry is notoriously stressful, and the day-to-day grind inside a hospital can sometimes become overwhelming for both patients and staff alike. At a small, community teaching hospital like Long Island Jewish Forest Hills, with nearly 1,500 in staff for 312 beds, there can often be a need for a pick-me-up.
Enter Dylan and Seamus, the faithful pet therapy dogs at LIJ Forest Hills. Once a week, these four-legged volunteers and their owners make the rounds at the hospital visiting patients who request it. Though a structure for the program comes from other hospitals under the Northwell Health umbrella, the idea to begin pet therapy at the Forest Hills location was born from the collaboration of a group of employees who love animals.
Both Dylan and Seamus have experience as pet therapists at Northwell hospitals and are certified through an outside agency, which ensures they have the proper vaccinations to keep all those involved safe. Dylan and his owner also work with Hofstra Northwell to help students with stress-relief during exam periods.
Pet therapy, defined as a guided interaction between an individual and a trained animal, is increasingly being used to help with behavioral health issues, PTSD and depression in hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient settings.
“You can visualize how a patient will become more relaxed, happier or cheerier,” says hospital executive director Susan Browning. “And you see employees who are busy working, and suddenly the animal enters and their eyes light up.”
Madalyn Frank-Cooper, who oversees the pet therapy program in addition to serving as stroke coordinator, has identified five critical benefits associated with the practice: improving heart health, providing a sense of purpose, fostering a happy environment, allowing for better relationships and enhancing self-esteem.
On top of the entertainment and calming effect that pets can supply for animal lovers, especially those passing their days in the hospital who may be bored or lonely, pets also boosts a patient’s sense of independence and ability to communicate. Studies have shown that petting an animal releases endorphins that can relieve anxiety and lower blood pressure, contributing to a decrease in risk for cardiovascular disease.
The LIJ Forest Hills pet therapy program comes as a part of the hospital’s push to establish a more expansive volunteer enterprise. Volunteers and junior volunteers (under 18) participate in activities that extend the efforts of the facility’s staff, from clerical work to shadowing physicians.
The hospital is also piloting branches of volunteering, such as soothing live music, craft time and a traveling library for patients, as well as cuisine companionship, a program that sends volunteers to assist selected patients with opening packages and encouraging them to finish meals without feeding them.
All of these things are instrumental in rendering the hospital atmosphere a little lighter and making sure patients receive quality care once they are admitted, but community outreach is just as important in the role that LIJ Forest Hills plays for the neighborhood.
“We do a lot of work when patients come in, but really our end goal is to try and go further upstream to catch the patients before they need acute care,” explains Downing.
She says LIJ Forest Hills develops ambulatory care within the community so that patients have access to a physician before they need to go to the hospital, as well as holds education events on issues like opioid use and gun violence.
On March 19, Northwell Health will take part in a behavioral health symposium at Rego Park Senior Center. Coordinators for the LIJ Forest Hills volunteer program are currently looking for new participants, particularly those with availability in the mornings, who want to give back to their community. The hospital is also accepting donations of magazines, books and disposable reading glasses.
To get involved, visit foresthills.northwell.edu/get-involved or call (718) 925-6603.