‘Pet Pals’ visit patients in local hospitals

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CLEVELAND - Man's best friend is spreading cheer to the sick at local hospitals. Each major hospital system in Northeast Ohio has volunteer therapy dog programs that offer patient visits.

Amid the ups and downs of life in a hospital, the friendly visits can make all the difference.

“It's kind of hard on both of us,” said Barb Phillips, whose daughter Lacie has been hospitalized at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital for the past five weeks. “We're kind of stuck in the room and she's uncomfortable, and it's heartbreaking, so the animals are a really big pleasure to her.”

The Pet Pals program at University Hospitals is now in its 25th year, growing to include 120 volunteers. Adam Lapsevich, of Bainbridge, brings his Pomeranian Petula in for weekly visits.

“It's probably the most rewarding thing I've ever gotten involved with in my life,” Lapsevich said. “When I'm having a bad day, I can just come in here and realize my problems are nothing compared to some people, and if I can make someone smile for a little while that's what it's about for me.”

Dogs in the program must be certified therapy dogs and go through medical screenings and behavioral screenings which involve seeing how the dog handles the noise, equipment and strangers they'll encounter in a hospital.

“We're really looking for dogs who are happy in our environment, dogs who love to engage with people,” UH Director of Volunteer Services Barb Nalette said. “We found that dogs really help the patient, they reduce anxiety, they make the environment more normal to people.”

On Friday, Petula visited 12 year old Andrew Stewart, of Wickliffe, who is recovering from surgery.

“We lost his dog in a house fire on Mother's Day,” said his mother, Marie Stewart. “So all the puppies are helping because he's such a dog lover. So, he enjoys it, and that's what makes the world for me: that he's happy.”

Information on becoming a volunteer for the Pet Pals program is available here.