Encouraging patients to bring things that remind them of home to the hospital may help promote healing.
In our hospital, therapy dogs walk through the halls with their owners looking for anyone who could use some cheering through a quick pat. These dogs are well-groomed and official; each has a hospital identification badge dangling from their collar. As the dogs comfort people, their owners hand out the dogs’ business cards, which detail the pup’s hobbies and favorite treats.
But not all canine visitors are so official. A few years ago, I was walking down the hallway behind a large brown dog who had mud and leaves hanging from his undercarriage. “Is this dog legitimate?” I thought, as he meandered through hall investigating the hospital scents. The dog and his owner happened to be visiting one of my patients and so I followed them into the room.
Once inside, the dog immediately went over to the hospital bed and put his head on it so the patient could give him a quick scratch. This woman had been in the ICU for several days and had been transferred out to the floor the day before, when I met her. On our meeting, she had been weak, her affect flat. On greeting her dog, I saw her smile for the first time.
While we talked, my patient’s husband poured the dog a quick drink in a toilet hat he placed on the floor. A phlebotomist knocked on the door and the dog moved closer to the patient’s bed, growling softly. I was clear that this was not a therapy dog.
I talked with my patient and her husband for a while, asked permission to give the dog a pat, and then left the room to continue my day. In retrospect, I probably should have questioned the dog’s presence at the bedside. I suspect, if asked, the patient might have said “he’s family.”
Oftentimes, the hospital can seem a harsh and clinical place for patients and their loved ones, without the familiar faces and comforts of home. Though perhaps the answer is not leaf-coated dogs, I think the more flexible we can be with allowing patients and families to bring pieces of home to the hospital, the more we can cultivate a place of healing.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.