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Furry friend lifts spirits at Lake Region's Cancer Center

An increasing body of research points to important benefits of pet therapy.

A well-mannered golden retriever looks up at you, wagging her tail.  You lean down and pet her, feeling her soft fur and unconditional love as she nuzzles closer. 

Didn't that moment seem lighter?

For the patients and families at Lake Region Healthcare's Cancer Center, this scenario happens often, thanks to the arrival of a trained and certified therapy dog named HeLa (pronounced hee-la).

"HeLa just has a way of changing the atmosphere," says Jamie Nordick, RN, director of the Cancer Center. "We know this is a place of hope and strength, but it can also be stressful -- the tests, the treatments, the unknowns.  HeLa has this ability to bring calm. People relax, they talk to her, they connect to happier times. Our patients love her. We all love her."

An increasing body of research points to important benefits of pet therapy, including lessened depression and fatigue. "It's been proven a therapy dog lightens the mood," says Nordick. "That's why we're seeing more of them in nursing homes and for veterans. A therapy dog is a companion and a stress reliever."  

Two girls with a big dream

The inspiration for a therapy dog at the Cancer Center goes back two years to a church playground in Fergus Falls. Gabby Brimhall, daughter of Carrie and Matt Brimhall, and Olivia Daniels, daughter of Jessica and Chad Daniels, were 11 years old then. Cousins as well as best friends, they put their heads together, imagining a better life for others.

"We were trying to think of something we could do to help the community," says Olivia.

"That's when the idea came to us. People at the Cancer Center are hurting and they might be scared, too. Maybe a dog could help brighten their day."

Adds Gabby: "I know if I were a patient at the Cancer Center I'd like to be cheered up by a dog."

Both girls love dogs and have dogs of their own, but a therapy dog at the Cancer Center? That was new territory.  First, it would have to be a safe, good experience for the patients. But beyond that, what kind of dog would be suitable? What training and certification would be needed? What would it cost? Who would take care of the dog? The girls researched the answers.

"Once we had the idea, there was no stopping us," says Gabby. They met with key people at the Cancer Center. One of the meetings included oncologist Dr. John Tate, whose dog had recently died. He listened carefully to their idea and offered to be the owner and handler.

"We could tell he knew what it was like to be comforted by a dog," says Olivia. "We liked that about him."

Creatively raising funds

The girls set out to raise money for the training and certification of a therapy dog.  They spent hours making string bracelets and knitting hats on circle looms, then sold them at school and a grocery store. They didn't set prices, but encouraged donations of any size.

"People were so kind," says Olivia. "They thought a therapy dog at the Cancer Center was a really good idea." In three months they raised $800.

In October 2015, Gabby and Olivia met the 2-month-old golden retriever who would become the Cancer Center's therapy dog.  They chose the name HeLa, based on the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." They found hope in this story of a woman who lost her battle to cancer in 1951, but contributed greatly to medical research through her cancer cells.

A joy to see

Wearing a Lake Region employee badge and a sparkly collar, HeLa recently completed her training and is now a fully certified therapy dog.  She and Dr. Tate come to work together every morning. He leads her on periodic strolls through the Cancer Center so she can visit patients. Much of her day is spent relaxing in her comfy dog-bed in the medical oncology department, where she greets patients coming to their appointments. For serious napping, she trots off to the quiet of Dr. Tate's office.

"I see firsthand the positive impact of HeLa," says Dr. Tate. "The smiles, the conversations, the interaction -- it's heartwarming."

Thank you to all who made it possible for the Cancer Center to have a trained and certified therapy dog. And a special thank you to two girls who dared to dream big.



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