Buddy the dog joins Newton-Wellesley Hospital staff to provide support for patients

NEWTON — Shortly after Child Life Specialist Candice Lavien began working at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, she thought about the impact a dog might have.  She and other colleagues who work with pediatric patients saw kids light up during occasional therapy dog visits. They wondered what a more permanent canine presence would do to lift spirits throughout the hospital. 

“Since then we’ve been on a mission to get a dog here,” Lavien explained to WBZ’s Lisa Hughes.

Then, the pandemic has exacted a toll on health care workers everywhere. At Newton-Wellesley, hospital leaders saw the need for an even more focused staff wellness initiative. Suddenly, the idea to get a facility dog had momentum. 

Child Life Coordinator Camilla Sutter and her staff proposed it and met with Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Kevin Whitney who loved the idea. Whitney presented the proposal to the hospital’s Senior Leadership Team which gave its unanimous support for a fundraising initiative that would involve the community in the effort to get a facility dog. They raised money for the dog and its training at the hospital’s virtual gala in 2021. For dog-loving employees, the countdown was on. The hard part was waiting.

How long would it take? What breed would it be? How old a dog would the hospital get? There were so many eager questions, so much anticipation. 

A few months ago, they learned that their facility dog would join the hospital in May. More recently, they saw his photo — 17-month-old Buddy the golden retriever would become their full-time colleague.

On May 8, Lavien and Buddy’s co-handler Jessica Mueller (also a Child Life Specialist) drove to Canine Assistants in Alpharetta, Georgia to spend time with Buddy at his training school. His bond-based training relies on trust, a certain amount of choice on Buddy’s part (he doesn’t do standard commands like “sit” “down” and “come”), and relationships. 

Lavien likens it to Montessori school, “He kind of leads the environment and we kind of guide him in a way that’s safe. So he learns by your body language. What you say is okay, by trusting you he can learn to do and trust the environment in the hospital.” 

Canine Assistants explained that, with this kind of training, Buddy will be able to provide a therapeutic relationship with patients, families, and staff. 

Mueller anticipates the comfort he will bring to kids at the hospital. “I think he’s gonna be amazing, with him and his special training, he’s able to provide so much. Like that pressure comfort—putting his paws on them during a procedure and proving that pressure support. Being a distraction during a procedure as well. They’re focused on the dog. They’re excited about the dog. They can forget they’re in a hospital. They can remember they’re kids. And that joy really helps with pain management too!”

Entering the hospital with Buddy for the first time on May 23, Lavien and Mueller saw the sheer joy on their colleague’s faces. Nurses like Donna Mullen, who’s worked at Newton-Wellesley for 49 years, were lined up in the hallway of the Child Life unit to meet him.  She could not contain her excitement. “We waited a year and a half for this dog and he is perfect,” she beamed.

Another nurse referred to Buddy’s arrival as the best day of her life. Emergency Department nurse Kathy Reda cried with happiness while she stroked Buddy’s silky fur and looked into his eyes. “He is so beautiful,” she whispered. 

With all of the stresses in the ER, Buddy offers a moment of calm. Twice last week, patient volume in the ER broke records (250 patients one day, 251 patients the next) which means the staff is racing from emergency to emergency. Just the sight of Buddy offered a chance to breathe and refocus. 

Kevin Whitney said for all the pressure the staff faces every day, Buddy’s unconditional love can help them tap into their own resilience. Just one day on the job, he can already see the difference on hospital morale.

For the next few months, Buddy will bond primarily with his co-workers. Sutter explained that the goal is to make him feel that he has 3,000 owners in Newton-Wellesley Hospital employees. Eventually, staff members will be able to use the hospital’s computer system to request a “Buddy visit” for themselves or for patients. He lives with Lavien and will work 40-hours a week. That work will include helping patients reach their goals. 

“For example, if there’s a patient who’s reluctant to walk, maybe if they walk Buddy down the hall they would get out of bed, “Sutter explained. “If there’s a patient who’s really closed down and having a hard time, maybe Buddy can visit and get them talking about their dog at home or their pets at home. If there’s a child who’s afraid of going into a machine like a CAT scanner, Buddy can hop up on the tray, get slid into the machine for a pretend cat scan, and then hop off, and then maybe the child will be encouraged to do so as well. We see Buddy as a tool to make this place less scary.” 

Sitting on a park bench outside the hospital, eye to eye with Buddy, Lavien couldn’t be happier. “He’s so handsome. And he’s already so well-loved.”

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